How to maximise joy while donating money for a good cause

Establish a social connection to giving and know the impact of your donation, experts say

If you are trying to encourage your children to be charitable, consider letting them choose the cause and how much to donate. Getty

We may think spending money on ourselves will make us happier than spending it on someone else. That belief can make it hard to carve money out of our budgets to donate to good causes.

This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon and one that applies whether we have a lot of money or only a little.

Generosity and happiness are pretty clearly linked in the research,” says Kristy Archuleta, a professor of financial planning at the University of Georgia. “When we are generous of our time, our talents, giving to others in whatever kind of capacity we can, we tend to be happier.”

However, some generous acts create more positive feelings than others. Here is what to consider if you want to maximise your happiness while helping others.

Make it social

Canadian social psychologist Lara Aknin says she has been interested in the emotional benefits of financial generosity since she was about eight and daydreaming ways she could help other people.

“I remember thinking if I save $10, I could give it to my parents and they could go out for dinner,” she says. “I clearly had no concept of money [because] I thought $10 would give them an evening out on the town.”

As a graduate student, Ms Aknin investigated ways money could improve well-being and found that “prosocial spending”, which is spending on others, was a source of happiness.

In subsequent research, Ms Aknin, now an associate professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby in British Columbia, determined that giving was most rewarding when it offered a social connection.

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The more information we have about the positive impact of our gifts, the greater the emotional rewards
Lara Aknin, social psychologist

Instead of sending someone a gift card to a restaurant, for example, we will feel happier if we take them out to dinner, Ms Aknin says.

Volunteering can connect us with others, as can organising or attending a fundraiser. Giving a group gift or donation is another way to up the social factor, Ms Aknin says.

Investigate your impact

We also want to know that our giving matters. Being able to see or envision the change our contributions will make tends to increase our happiness, Ms Aknin says.

In a 2013 study led by Ms Aknin, participants were given a choice to donate to one of two charities dedicated to improving children’s health in impoverished areas – Unicef and Spread the Net.

Spread the Net offered a concrete example of a donation’s impact by specifying that every $10 given would buy a lifesaving mosquito net. Unicef did not provide such details. Participants who donated to Spread the Net felt happier after their contribution but those who gave to Unicef did not, researchers found.

“The more information we have about the positive impact of our gifts, the greater the emotional rewards,” Ms Aknin says.

This does not mean you should not give money to Unicef. But you may find more satisfaction from your donation if you read stories about the organisation’s impact or peruse its annual report.

Emphasise choice

Want to take the joy out of giving? Make it an obligation, Ms Aknin says. For maximum happiness, people need to have a choice about whether to give, to whom and how much.

“If people feel caught or forced or obliged, these emotional rewards sometimes disappear or can be severely dampened,” she says.

You can increase your sense of autonomy by planning your charitable giving, says Ms Archuleta, a certified financial therapist and co-founder of the Financial Therapy Association.

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Think about what you value, investigate non-profits that support those values and consider making recurring contributions part of your budget
Kristy Archuleta, financial therapist

Think about what you value, investigate non-profits that support those values and consider making recurring contributions part of your budget, she says.

If you are trying to encourage your children to be charitable, consider letting them choose the cause and how much to donate. (You can offer guidelines, such as giving away a nickel, a dime or a quarter of every dollar they receive.)

Find ways to demonstrate their impact: $20 might buy a flock of chickens for a family through Heifer International, for example, or feed a shelter pet for a few weeks. Encourage them to make social connections by volunteering or fundraising with friends.

“Giving in the more rewarding ways is important, not only because you feel good in the moment, but because that warm glow will be one factor that encourages you to give again,” Ms Aknin says.

Updated: January 21, 2022, 4:00 AM
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