Wed Apr 16 2014
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Giving makes us happier, but what if you don’t have much to give?

This article is by staff writer Kristin Wong.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, or maybe it’s that I’m in a better financial place than I was just a few years ago, but lately, I’ve been thinking a lot more about giving back.

In recent years, it’s becoming more important to me to be socially conscious and charitable. I’m secure, I’m healthy, and I’m free. That contentment seems to urge me to check in on the rest of the world.

Or, maybe it’s coming from a more selfish place.

According to a new research paper from Harvard Business School, spending money on others makes us happy.

Giving makes us happier

The paper, titled, “Prosocial Spending and Happiness,” was published this year in Current Directions in Psychological Science. In it, psychologists write:

“Although a great deal of research has shown that people with more money are somewhat happier than are people with less money, our research demonstrates that how people spend their money also matters for their happiness. In particular… people who spend money on others report more happiness.”

The researchers cite a 2008 study they conducted. Subjects were given $ 5 or $ 20 to spend by the end of the day. Half of the participants were told to buy themselves something nice. The other half were instructed to use the money to help somebody in need.

Results found that the givers reported greater happiness:

“That evening, people who had been assigned to spend the money on someone else reported happier moods over the course of the day than did those people assigned to spend the money on themselves.”

Other research seems to suggest that feeling happiness after giving is an innate trait. In 2012, one of the researchers, Lara Aknin, conducted a study that involved toddlers under the age of 2. Aknin found that when toddlers gave away crackers to a puppet, they “exhibited more happiness” than when they kept the crackers for themselves.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Conflicting studies have found that giving back doesn’t alwaysincrease happiness. For example, a 2010 study found that people only felt happier about giving money away when they had a choice of how much to give.

Overall, the paper suggested that organizations can appeal to possible donors by maximizing “the emotional benefits of giving.” Basically, make people feel happy about giving.

But whether it makes us happy or not, giving is important. I have to admit, I feel a bit selfish for only thinking about the plight of others now that my own life is in order. Maybe you have to look out for yourself before you can look out for others.

But even if you don’t have a lot of resources, there are ways to give.

Support social enterprise

Unless companies make big, disgusting headlines, most people don’t pay much attention to business ethics and social enterprise. Forbes discussed this topic recently. They reported on a survey that found many American consumers (30 percent) want to start buying from socially responsible companies. But at the same time, most of these consumers aren’t familiar with social enterprise, the concept of a business making “improvements in human and environmental well-being, rather than maximizing profits for external shareholders.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Forbes reports that the poll was conducted by Good.Must.Grow, an organization “aimed at social enterprises and nonprofits that also uses money from after-tax profits to help nonprofits pay for marketing services they couldn’t otherwise afford.”

Becoming a more socially conscious consumer is probably the simplest way to give back when you don’t have much to give. Next time you make a purchase, find a company that will use some of the profit for good. Purchase from a “buy-one-give-one” company. Of course, being a socially conscious consumer does take some research and an open mind.

Oh, and maybe a small sacrifice in frugality.

“What’s more, many consumers also seemed to be more interested in getting a good deal than making a difference,” Forbes reports.

I’m all for a good deal, but as J.D. wrote, “Money gives you more options, but happiness makes life worth living.” If making a difference makes you happy, then it might be worth it to forgo a good deal for the benefit of social enterprise.

Redeem your credit card rewards

It’s not for everyone, but some of us like to earn rewards on our credit cards by using them for our expenses, and then pay off the balance in full each month.

Instead of redeeming your rewards for cash, consider redeeming them for a charitable donation, if your rewards program offers that option.


Of course, if you don’t have a lot of money, but you do have some time, volunteering is the way to go. Perhaps selfishly, it’s also probably the most gratifying way to give back. VolunteerMatch is a website that helps you find volunteer opportunities in your area.

Get crafty

This is very cool. In an article about supporting charities without donating money, Mental Flossfound quite a few organizations that need handmade items. If you want to volunteer on your own time, you can knit blankets for shelter animals, for example. Or you can assemble Chemocaps for cancer victims.

There are multitudes of ways to give back when you have limited resources. You can donate blood, cut your hair, or clean out your closets and give the items to Goodwill.

Maybe you’re like me and you suddenly feel a social responsibility because you’re grateful for your health and well-being. Maybe it makes you happy to see others benefit from your help. Maybe you want to give back simply because you believe it’s the right thing to do. Regardless of our intention, there’s a lot of need in the world.

Do you give back? If so, how?

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