It's OK That It Makes Us Feel Happy to Give to Others

The following is an excerpt from the new book  The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories and Science Behind the Transformative Power of Giving  by Jenny Santi (Penguin Random House, 2015): 


Seven years ago, I stumbled into the unusual career of advising extraordinarily wealthy people on their charitable activities. Straight out of business school, I was hired by one of the world’s largest private banks to be their in-house philanthropy advisor, and I relocated from New York City to Singapore. It was a dream job for many, including me. To this day, almost every day, I get random requests from people wanting to hear how I landed a position that they perceive to be about “telling rich people how to give away their money.” (The job definitely had aspects of that, but as in any corporate job, it was not nearly as glamorous as people would imagine.)

My job exposed me to an extraordinary world where the clients I met were hundreds of times richer than Madonna. My clients had made enough money—hundreds of millions, even billions—to give in a significant way, often through a formal family foundation or a charitable trust. Week after week, I met with them privately, listening to the stories of what moved them to do what they do, probing deeply to understand their values and motivations so that I could guide them towards the most appropriate and natural course of action.

Through my work as a philanthropy advisor, I also had a chance to meet and speak privately with so many men and women from the social sector – entrepreneurs, nonprofit professionals, young students, and volunteers from different walks of life. Not everyone had a lot of money to give away. Many were giving their time, their talents, and a big part of their lives to something that mattered deeply to them, and again I was struck by what I observed. Every time they spoke about their work – regardless of how grim the issue they were addressing, whether it was cancer, global warming, or domestic abuse – they beamed with purpose, and radiated with something that I can only call joy.

Yet outside those private settings, it seems that the world is all too hesitant to embrace the idea that by giving, we indeed receive.... Just as the philosopher Immanuel Kant considered acts motivated by sympathy as not praiseworthy (because they make the do-gooder feel better), it seems we have convinced ourselves that giving should be a sacrifice, an act of moral responsibility that renders itself null when we derive any joy from it. But why?

...

These days, we are entering a tipping point in giving—or philanthropy, a word I try to avoid because it sends images of Bill Gates writing billion-dollar checks to save the world, excluding the rest of us who can’t afford the same.

There is a growing body of media articles, books, programs and conferences that focus on giving, philanthropy, fund-raising, social entrepreneurship, or impact investing.  But almost nothing out there focuses on the origin of the philanthropic impulse: the heart.

I believe that givers start giving because they are moved by a cause, but they endure because giving brings them happiness and fulfillment. As Bill Clinton said, “When I was president, Make-A-Wish brought forty-seven young people to see me, either in the White House or during my visits to communities where the children lived. Those kids did a lot more for me than I did for them.” The work I have done with notable individuals and wealthy donors over the last seven years gave me a glimpse of this and taught me that there is much more to uncover about the transformative effects of giving upon the self.

Aristotle coined the concept of eudemonia, a state in which an individual experiences happiness from the successful performance of their moral duties. Or in the simple, beautiful words of an old Chinese proverb: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”

Modern science sheds new light on this phenomenon. More than 20 years ago, Allan Luks brought forward the concept of the "helper's high,” resulting from studies that show that groups who had helped through time and/or money experience a “euphoria” similar to that of those who had completed a physical challenge such as a race. Other sources have proven that giving activates the same brain regions that are activated by cocaine usage. I am not suggesting that drug use take the place of donations, but it seems that both activate the ventral striatum region, the pleasure part of the brain; and at least two of the nonprofit professionals I have met in the course of [my work] have described the thrill they get from their work as similar to getting high on a drug.

A 2008 study by Professor Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia found that spending money on others promotes happiness more than spending money on oneself. In an experiment, participants were given an envelope with either five dollars or 20 dollars, which they were asked to spend by the end of the day. Participants who were instructed to spend the money on a gift for someone else or for a charitable donation reported greater happiness than those who were instructed to spend the money on themselves. The study concluded by saying that policy interventions that encourage people to invest income in others rather than in themselves may be worthwhile in the service of translating increased national wealth into increased national happiness.

Every day I see people trying to fill their time with something meaningful – what TV show to watch, what restaurant to indulge in, which mall to spend the whole day in. Young people trying to find some pastime to entertain them, and old people worried about what to do during their retirement. And yet countless people have, since the dawn of history, alluded to a completely different pathway to happiness, fulfilment, and meaning in life. There is something else out there...  The answer lies in giving.

Adapted from  The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories and Science Behind the Transformative Power of Giving  by Jenny Santi. © 2015 by Jennifer Rose W. Santi. Tarcher Books, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House.

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