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Giving and Happiness: A Complicated Partnership

donate-button-thRecently a reader suggested I write about the relationship between giving and happiness, noting that research shows people who give to charity are happier. One such study from Harvard Business School in 2009 is titled “Feeling Good About Giving.” It not only found a link between giving and happiness, but highlighted some thought-provoking issues about the ways charities ask for donations.

Yet the question of whether prosocial spending (i.e., donating to charitable causes) promotes happiness is far from a simple one. Many times, giving is complicated by guilt, shame, and obligation.

I remember attending a luncheon hosted by a local charity to explain a building project it was undertaking. I had never given to this particular organization, but I supported the project. The organizers described it in detail and asked supporters to contribute monthly payments over a five-year period.

Impressed with the project, I decided to pledge $250 a month. This would add up to what to me was a substantial gift of $15,000. I felt happy about my choice to give this amount to a project I really believed in.

If that had been the end of it, everyone would have been happy, but unfortunately it wasn’t. Just before we were asked to fill out a card with our pledges, table hosts handed out personalized envelopes to each person. These contained suggested contribution amounts. I opened the envelope to find my suggested pledge was $1,667. It took me several seconds to realize this wasn’t an annual or a five-year total; it was the monthly pledge. I was speechless.

My feeling of happiness over what I viewed as a generous contribution immediately vanished. I was now feeling guilt and shame. I felt that if I were to offer $250 a month when the expectation was $1,667, my gift would not be appreciated and I would also be perceived as stingy and greedy.

When the time came to make our pledges, I put down “$0.” What had been a gift freely given had become an obligation, and an insufficient one at that.

Over the years, I have come to realize that giving, like other forms of spending, can be done for many reasons, some of which we aren’t even consciously aware of. To help make more conscious choices about giving to either charities or individuals, you might consider asking yourself the following questions, which are adapted from a checklist in my co-authored book Conscious Finance.

1. If a charity is involved, is it legitimate and well-run? (One source for checking is charitynavigator.org.)
2. How will I feel if I make this gift? Satisfied? Joyful? Resentful? Taken advantage of?
3. Will this gift help someone solve a problem or take responsibility for solving the problem away from them?
4. Will this gift encourage the recipient’s independence or foster dependence?
5. Am I giving freely or out of guilt or obligation?
6. What might be the consequences if I make this gift? If I don’t?
7. Am I giving out of a genuine desire to help or to get attention and recognition for myself?
8. Am I feeling pressured or rushed into an answer? Do I need some time to think before I decide?
9. Are there other ways I might help instead of giving money?
10. Will this gift foster closeness between the recipient and me or create a barrier between us?

Asking questions like these can help us clarify our motivations around giving and make our decisions more consciously. This makes it more likely that our giving will promote happiness and satisfaction for ourselves. Equally important, it increases the likelihood that our giving will promote happiness and well-being for the recipients.

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One Response to Giving and Happiness: A Complicated Partnership

  1. Mary Zill March 7, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

    I very much enjoyed this column–also your admission, in another column, that your wife was correct and you were mistaken. Those same columns could have been written without revealing your personal experience but it was refreshing that your financial acumen and human-ness were not dampened by ego. All your columns are instructional but these two were special. Thank you.