Giving to Charity Makes Us Happy

“If you want to feel good, you have to go out and do some good.” 

Oprah Winfrey articulated a fundamental value that many of us share, but sentiment isn’t sufficient for scientists. 

Thus researchers set out to answer a complex question: Can people enrich their own lives through charitable giving? The answer brings us to a beautiful place where hard science and the human spirit intersect.

Research demonstrates that giving does indeed make us happier. With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University published the study “Charitable Giving and Life Satisfaction” in 2017. The researchers stated their conclusion with wonderful simplicity: “The more a household gives as a percentage of income, the higher the household’s life satisfaction.” 

Their findings are universal. Whether your income is less than $50,000 per year or several times more, the trend holds true. It doesn’t matter whether you’re married, cohabitating or single: The more you contribute to charity, the happier you are. 

Of course, there are variations as to the degree of improvement in life satisfaction that each demographic group experiences with increased charitable giving. Statistically speaking, single men are traditionally the group least likely to donate all. Not surprisingly then, the study found that single men receive the greatest boost in life satisfaction when they do become donors for the first time.

With both single and married women, on the other hand, the act of giving has a cumulative effect that accelerates their life satisfaction. It’s exactly the opposite of the diminishing returns you’d expect with most things that we think make us happy. Women experience more happiness with the next dollar they give away than they did with the last dollar.

These findings are consistent with what other scientists have discovered. Studies published by the American Psychological Association as well as researchers in the United Kingdom have demonstrated many positive links between the amount of money and time a person donates to charity and their psychological well-being and physical health.

In the 2017 study “A Neural Link between Generosity and Happiness,” published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers noted that “generous behavior is costly” because obviously you’re giving away your time and/or money. Yet generosity is commonplace in our world, and thus “standard economic theory fails to explain generous behavior.”

These scientists wanted to see whether there was an observable neurological and physiological basis that explains the fundamental human desire to be generous with others. They randomly divided the study participants into two groups. The first group was instructed to spend a sum of money for other people’s benefit during a four-week period; the second was told to spend the money on themselves. At the end of the month, the participants were put into an MRI machine. In the participants who were generous with others, the researchers mapped increased neurological activity in the areas of the brain that are associated with increased levels of happiness. In other words, giving feels good.

The work of neurological scientists aligns with the conclusions of psychologists and the research of social scientists: There is neurological evidence linking a person’s willingness to give to others and their own life satisfaction.

This is something I experience virtually every week in my professional life. One of the primary roles of the Door County Community Foundation is to facilitate gifts from estate plans to charities and causes in the community. In my field, the old saying is that “you don’t give to the community foundation; you give through the community foundation.”

Thus far in my career, I’ve had the privilege of assisting hundreds of families whose estate plans have – or one day will – collectively donate almost a quarter of a billion dollars to charity. I’ve sat with an older woman on a fixed income who is leaving $10,000 to help our local kids as well as a wealthy couple whose estate will eventually contribute more than $30 million to fund a wide range of charitable activities.

Regardless of how much money is involved, all these people have one thing in common: They universally experience a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction because of the charitable legacy they’re creating.

Almost inevitably, when we finish planning for the charitable part of an estate plan, these generous people thank me for the Community Foundation’s assistance. Just stop to think about that for a moment: They are thanking me. The scientists finally can explain why: Giving to charity makes us happy.

Email Bret Bicoy at [email protected].

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