Liz Weston: How to get more joy while giving to good causes

·4 min read

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 give to good causes.

But research shows that spending money on others is more likely to make us happy. 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.”

Some generous acts create more positive feelings than others, however. 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 about 8 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 laughs. “I clearly had no concept of money (because) I thought $10 would give them an evening out on the town.”

As a graduate student, Aknin investigated ways money could improve well-being and found that “prosocial spending” — spending on others — was a source of happiness. In subsequent research, Aknin — now a distinguished associate professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia — determined that giving was most rewarding when it offered a social connection . Instead of sending someone a gift card to a restaurant, for example, we’ll feel happier if we take them out to dinner, Aknin says.

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

In a 2013 study led by 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,” Aknin says.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give money to UNICEF, of course. But you may get more satisfaction from your donation if you read stories about the organization’s impact or peruse its annual report .

EMPHASIZE CHOICE

Want to take the joy out of giving? Make it an obligation, 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 Archuleta, a certified financial therapist and co-founder of the Financial Therapy Association . Think about what you value, investigate nonprofits that support those values and consider making recurring contributions part of your budget, she suggests.

If you’re 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. And 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 that warm glow will be one factor that encourages you to give again,” Aknin says.

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This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Liz Weston is a columnist at NerdWallet, a certified financial planner and the author of “Your Credit Score.” Email: lweston@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @lizweston.

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