Found Money Buys a Little Happiness

11/24/2014 09:43 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Kevin Bacon was on TV last Sunday, footloose in a toy store. Having a good time with the customers was his way of encouraging local businesses to join Shop for Good, and give a portion of all purchases made in a day to a school or charity of the customer's choosing.

This sort of "found money" -- money we didn't think or hadn't realized we had -- makes us feel good. Even more so when we spend it on others. Or that's the finding from a series of studies by Elizabeth Dunn, associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and co-author of the book Happy Money.

In her study, she handed out cash to students on campus and told some to spend it on themselves and others to spend it on someone else. Those who spent money on other people were happier than those who treated themselves.

Found money is the secret sauce for the Boomerang Giving project. Boomers and older Americans with the means are given the opportunity to 'give back,' by reinvesting some or all of the senior discounts they receive for public transportation, movies, restaurants, etc to charities of their choice.

It's also what Francesca Olivieri writes about in her recent blog post "PIPs powers my good karma cravings." PIPs, a virtual currency she earns making better daily life choices, is found money. When she shops responsibly - like buying Annie's Organic Mac and Cheese, stocking up on toxic free kitty litter, selecting ethically sourced clothing and downloading the Calm meditation app -- she gets PIPs.

Francesca is free to spend her PIPs on many beneficial products and services, but in this, the season of giving, she decides to pledge them to charities -- like Doctors without Borders to fight the spread of Ebola, the 2 Degree Food Fund which feeds hungry children and Trickle Up which coaches the ultra poor in micro-enterprise.

Giving, even small amounts, gives back universally. By that, I mean no matter whether one is rich or poor or somewhere in between, giving makes each of us happier. "A lot of us think we'll give to charity one day, when we're richer," Professor Dunn told the Wall Street Journal, "but actually we see the benefits of giving even among people who are struggling to meet their own basic needs."

It's like Francesca says: finding money in everyday actions like shopping, and paying it forward through programs like Shop for Good, Boomerang Giving and PIPs, does indeed satisfy the good karma cravings in all of us.