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Giving: The Science of Lasting Happiness

Giving: The Science of Lasting HappinessYou know those deep, gaping, and painful existential feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and meaninglessness you’ve been feeling all your life? That bottomless void that you’ve been so desperately trying to fill with yoga, meditation, a spiritual trip to the Himalayas, and a monthly subscription to seven of the latest and greatest “mindfulness” apps. 

Well, you’ll be ecstatic to know that there may be another way to bring true joy and lasting happiness to your life that doesn’t involve breaking your back to learn a particularly impossible Yoga pose, all the while helping those around you and changing the world. 

What exactly is this “miracle cure” for your blues? Drum roll please ... charity! Now, I’m sure we’ve all heard the numerous adages about how giving makes us happy. That being said, most of us don’t know where to start; exactly how much should someone give, and if giving makes one happy, would it not be logical to assume that the more a person gives, the happier they’ll be? The answer is no, and I have the science to prove it. 

I’m going to show you several studies on how giving leads to happiness, and watch closely, because you’re going to see something fascinating emerge. 

Professor Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and his team investigated this happiness phenomenon through a series of studies that have since been published in Science Magazine. The research group interviewed over 600 American workers with a series of questions asking about how much money they made and how they spent it, as well as having them self-rate their happiness levels. From the results, they found out that, size of income aside, those that felt happier were those that spent more on others as opposed to themselves. They organized a second trial, this time giving volunteers a day to spend either $5 or $20 to spend however they pleased, and yet again, the altruistic group reported higher levels of happiness. It is important to note, however, that those who gave lesser amounts away felt just as happy as those who gave the entirety of their $20 away. 

Professor Norton’s studies were replicated years later by the University of British Columbia’s Professor Elizabeth Dunn, as she too interviewed over 600 Americans and gave UBC students the same $5/$20 quandary. Once again—despite the research subjects assuming from the start that spending on themselves would make them happier—her research team’s results echoed that of Professor Norton’s, with those that gave to others feeling significantly happier than their counterparts. She repeated her experiments in several other countries—including Canada and Uganda—and found that people felt the same effects from charity, regardless of location. 

In case you’re not convinced just yet, researchers from the University of Zurich organized their study in a slightly different way—this time, results weren’t taken from surveys, but from readouts done by an M.R.I. machine, which analyze activity in the brain. The scientists’ discoveries mirrored those of the aforementioned studies, and found out that those who were told to try and donate their money had much greater activity in their ventral striatum—the reward center of the brain—than those that weren’t. The activity didn’t fluctuate with how much someone donated, however, but rather depended on the intention of generosity alone. 

Did you catch it? Every single one of these studies involved small sums of money—not a frivolously expensive donation to the Met, but $5, the price of a fast food meal. On top of that, the satisfaction they received was immediate, with the brain reacting nearly instantaneously with the mere thought of helping someone or something that they care about. Evidently, the key to happiness lies within the action of giving itself, not with how much you give; it’s the combination of moving your body, picking up your hand, and making the decision to make a change that has a clear, science-backed impact on your happiness. 

Now, this fix isn’t a one-time thing—you need to do it consistently, otherwise its effect on your happiness will begin to wear off and you’ll find yourself crawling back to binge watching depressing amounts of  motivational videos on YouTube. 

The good news, however, is that anybody can do it easily. Think about it—instead of spending more on that extra cup of coffee in the morning that artificially perks you up for a few hours—only to leave you crashing back down after—you could be giving that cash away and getting started on your renewed, life-long path to happiness. 

When we get ourselves a “fix”—be it food, drugs, shopping—the endorphin rush is short-lived and must be constantly experienced anew. When something positive is sent out into the world, we can see the long-term effect it has on others, and watch it spread outward through relationships by actions or deeds that we have set in motion; a much more sustainable level of positive feedback on the brain. 

The Talmud asks: “When is someone happy? When one asks him a question and he has the answer.” Our happiness thus lies in our ability to be the solution. Too often are people asked to make a difference, and too often they don’t help. They don’t realize that by giving to othersno matter how smallevery day, we fulfill not only ourselves, but those we assist as well. As Winston Churchill famously said, We make a living of what we get. We get a life for what we give.”

Giving: The Science of Lasting Happiness

Moshe Hecht, @moshehecht, is chief innovation officer of Charidy, @wearecharidy, a crowdfunding program that has helped 1,500 organizations raise over a half billion dollars. Moshe is an accomplished entrepreneur and team leader whose passion lies at the intersection of technology and charitable giving. When Moshe is not at the office, he is writing music and enjoying downtime with his wife and three redheaded children.

Topics: Donors Giving and Happiness Happiness