We may think that spending money on ourselves makes us happier than spending it on someone else. This belief can make it difficult to cut money from our budgets to donate to good causes.
But research shows that spending money on others is more likely to make us happier. This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon, regardless of whether we are rich or poor.
“Generosity and happiness are pretty clearly linked in research,” says Kristy Archuleta, professor of financial planning at the University of Georgia. “When we are generous with our time and talents and give everything we can to others, we tend to be happier.”
However, some acts of generosity create more positive feelings than others. Here’s what to consider if you want to maximize your happiness while helping others.
Make it social
Canadian social psychologist Lara Aknin says she’s been interested in the emotional benefits of financial generosity since she was eight and dreamed of how she could help other people.
“I remember thinking if I saved $10 I could give it to my parents and they could go out to dinner,” she laughs. “I clearly had no concept of money (because) I figured $10 would get them a night out on the town.”
As a graduate student, Aknin studied how money might improve well-being and found that “prosocial spending” — spending on others — is a source of happiness. In later research, Aknin — now a distinguished associate professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia — found that giving is most rewarding when it offers social connection. For example, instead of sending someone a gift certificate to a restaurant, we feel happier if we invite them to dinner, says Aknin.
Volunteering can connect us to others, as can organizing or participating in a fundraiser. Giving a group gift or donation is another way to increase the social factor, Aknin says.
Examine your impact
We also want to know that our giving is important. Being able to see or imagine the change our contributions will make tends to increase our happiness, says Aknin.
In a 2013 study led by Aknin, participants were given the choice to donate to one of two charities dedicated to improving the health of children in impoverished areas: UNICEF and Spread the Net. Spread the Net provided a concrete example of the impact of a donation, stating that for every $10 donated, a life-saving mosquito net would be purchased. UNICEF did not do such details. Participants who donated to Spread the Net felt happier after their contribution, but those who donated to UNICEF did not, researchers found.
“The more information we have about the positive impact of our gifts, the greater the emotional rewards,” says Aknin.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give money to UNICEF. But your donation may make you happier if you read stories about the organization’s impact or read its annual report.
Would you like to lose the joy of giving? Make it a commitment, says Aknin. For maximum happiness, people must have choices about whether to give, to whom, and how much.
“Sometimes when people feel caught, coerced, or obligated, these emotional rewards disappear or can be severely muted,” she says.
You can increase your sense of autonomy by planning your charitable giving, says Archuleta, a board-certified financial therapist and co-founder of the Financial Therapy Association. Think about what you value, investigate nonprofits that support those values, and consider adding recurring contributions to your budget, she suggests.
If you’re trying to encourage your children to be charitable, consider letting them choose the purpose and amount of the donation. (You can offer guidelines, such as giving away a nickel, a dime, or a quarter for every dollar they receive.) Find ways to demonstrate your impact: For example, for $20, a flock of chickens could be raised for a family can be purchased through Heifer International, or feed a shelter pet for a few weeks. And encourage them to socialize by volunteering or fundraising with friends.
“It’s important to give in more rewarding ways, not just because you’re feeling good in the moment, but that warm glow will be a factor that encourages you to give again,” says Aknin.
Liz Weston is a columnist at NerdWallet, a certified financial planner and the author of Your Credit Score. Email: lwestonnerdwallet.com. Twitter: lizweston.