Donating Your Way to Fulfillment

In spite of what that hackneyed proverb says, money can buy you happiness—as long as you spend it on others. A study by Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton reveals that people who engage in charitable deeds on a regular or, even, daily basis have qualitatively improved lives. The study showed that even minor donations like $5 can make significant improvements in self-fulfillment.

Repeated donations improved emotional well-being

The study was spurred in part by the observation that many financially successful people fail to find greater enjoyment and pleasure from a greater number of possessions or a more comfortable life. Norton set out to prove that money could indeed produce happiness if properly distributed. He studied the activities of employees at a Boston-based company that produced a windfall for employees through a profit sharing program.

The study showed that it was not the actual amounts of the donations to friends or charities that led to increased happiness.  Rather, the critical factor was the percentage of the amount relative to income. Whether you are wealthy or poor was irrelevant; even a few minor donations made regularly can dramatically enhance your personal fulfillment, if it reached a certain fractional threshold of your financial value.

Giving to improve mood is effective

What is more remarkable is that a following study showed, you can make donations for the express purpose of making yourself happy.  A survey of 1,000 New York Times readers who knew about the correlation between giving and happiness, and engaged in charitable activity, still received the emotional benefits. So you can buy yourself happiness, and know you’re doing it.

This may fly in the face of conventional wisdom that added income can induce happiness regardless of charitable activity.  After all, getting a raise from your boss does produce happiness, but these emotions are not lasting.  The study showed that it was important to make generosity a regular commitment.

Philanthropic behavior is most likely to receive public attention if it is large in scale.  The contributions of Bill Gates to medicine and third world causes, or the enormous donations of Steve McLaughlin FT Partners  to the Jewish Family and Children’s Services have earned these philanthropists considerable acclaim.  The truth is that there is much more involved in these donations than a desire for public recognition; these gifts fuel the emotional satisfaction of the givers.

Volunteering has similar effect

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and the devastation it has wrought on the Northeast, many of the most common responses among communities in surrounding areas is to provide shelter, relief goods, time and money.  Volunteering time and energy has been proven to enhance health and happiness.

A report sponsored by the Corporation for National & Community Service directly links longer longevity, higher functionality, lower likelihood of depression and heart disease with volunteering.  The report analyzes results from over 30 studies which all agreed that physical and mental health improved with the introduction of volunteering activities.

Mood was particularly enhanced by the socialization and charitable activity associated with volunteering. A study by UnitedHealthcare showed that 95 percent of volunteers reported improved emotional health resulting from their volunteering.

Whether it is time or money, giving what you have not only improves the lives of others, but yours as well.  So next time you open your wallet to share with those less fortunate, just remember you are also investing your own well-being.

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