THE BLOG
09/18/2014 11:31 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

'You Can Be a Millionaire... and Never Pay Taxes!'

Steve Martin, in his white-suited '70s splendor, smug self-satisfaction on his face, repeats the assertion in his best infomercial voice, then adds: "You say, 'Steve, how can I be a millionaire and never pay taxes?'"

"OK first," he explains, "get a million dollars."

Then, when the tax man comes to your door, you look him in the eye and say two simple words:

"I... forgot."

No one would accuse Warren Buffett of stealing his material from Steve Martin, and certainly the similarity of the message doesn't take long to dissipate, but Buffett's "Secret to Happiness" at least shares a similar rhythm.

Step One: "Get a billion dollars."

Step Two: "Give half of it away."

The second-richest man in America, who with Bill Gates launched the "Giving Pledge" initiative in 2013, encouraging the world's billionaires to donate at least half of their fortunes to worthy causes, also says the giving of the non-billionaires among us can be more powerful still.

What Buffett doesn't tell us is that it also might be our key to happiness.

Research reveals that people are happier when they are helping others rather than just benefiting themselves. In a philanthropy vs. fun experiment by Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, Seligman had his classes set up two types of activities -- one pleasurable and one altruistic -- and compare the results. What they found, Seligman says, was "life-changing." The afterglow of the "fun" activity paled in comparison with the effects of giving.

Helping others connects us to our true selves and to others, and, according to Seligman, gives us the greatest happiness. Surely, the study showed, it takes a lot less than $500 million to experience that rush.

If these findings are true, Buffett must be world's happiest man. The financier and philanthropist has vowed to give away 99 percent of his vast fortune, estimated at more than $63 billion, during his lifetime and, ultimately, through his will. He made news in July when he gave away $2.8 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other charities, mostly focused on education and medical research. The sum was a personal best for Buffett, making up for the mere $2 billion he donated last year.

Buffett's target audience has been those who, literally, have more money than they know what to do with. Even more money than their children could ever benefit from. But still, many billionaires turn him down, prompting Buffett to consider writing a book about how they could eke by on $500 million, he said, with tongue in cheek, "because apparently there's a lot of people that don't really know how to do it."

Buffett's desire and actions to better the world should be, and have been, lauded. But Buffett himself recognizes it is the non-billionaires whose giving should be truly honored.

"Their philanthropy goes beyond ours," Buffett said recently in a "60 Minutes" interview. "They are giving up something that actually has real utility to them. We're giving up surplus. The money we're giving away has no meaning to us."

So, does the happiness that comes with philanthropy outweigh the relative pain of giving for those whose net worth can be stated using but one comma? Is the benefit greater than the cost?

Research suggests it is. Giving and well-being go hand-in-hand, according to a 2012 study by the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre. The survey found that 66 percent of the people who volunteered or donated money reported being satisfied and happy with their lives. In contrast, less than half of the non-givers reported a high sense of well-being.

When we give of ourselves, we also live longer. Researchers at the U.K.'s University of Exeter found that volunteers were less depressed, had higher levels of well-being and life satisfaction, and had longer lifespans. In addition, new research from Carnegie Mellon University found that older people who volunteer decrease their risk of high blood pressure by 40 percent.

So, give till it hurts. You may just find happiness.

Jason Powers, M.D., is chief medical officer at Right Step's family of Texas rehab centers and Promises Austin. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, a scientifically validated approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives upon achieving sobriety.