May 15

How to Maximize the Happiness Boost You Get from Giving

When you’re trying to pay down debt or create a budget, giving to others can seem like a goal that would be nice to achieve at some point in the future. But more and more research finds that giving is essential — not only because it feels like something you “should” do, but because it can actually benefit your financial health and emotional well being.


Even toddlers will show an emotional boost when they give to others — potentially because the survival of the human species depends on us being hardwired to understand that giving benefits us all. But if you don’t get those warm fuzzies from giving, it’s not you — it’s just that you just haven’t found the right way to give yet.


Elizabeth Dunn speaks at TED2019: Bigger Than Us. April 15 – 19, 2019, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED


Liz Dunn, Ph.D., Happy Money’s Chief Scientist and an expert on this very topic, recently shared some of her findings in a TED talk. But she had a confession to share on the world stage: Though she was researching the connection between donating and happiness, previously, she herself rarely gave to charity. And when she did, she didn’t experience the “warm glow” that her research suggested should come with writing a check. That’s why she dug deeper in her research and her personal life for new insights into how we give, why it matters, and why giving is such an essential part of your financial happiness. Here, she shares her surprising findings. Use them in your own giving and watch your happiness levels rise.



Looking for a happy way to give isn’t frivolous

Sure, giving feels like something we “should” do. But it’s also something that’s hard-wired to make us happy. Choosing to find a way to give that lights us up isn’t trivial, it’s smart. When it comes to significant giving (whether it’s volunteering or giving money) it’s okay to research and look around for the option that makes you excited. When you feel intrinsically motivated to give, you’re more invested in the cause, and you’ll be able to find even more opportunities to align your talents to the needs of the organization.


Find something that you can’t stop telling friends about, one that makes you feel a burning desire to “do something.” Dip your toe into different organizations, and then take the time to dig deeper and connect to a recipient, whether it’s a family, a forest, or a puppy. Those connections are often what spark that elusive “glow.”



Connect with others

One of the best ways to give is to find opportunities that foster a sense of community. Giving money to a cause is always welcome, but it can be tough to feel connected when your only point of contact to an organization is a “donate here” button on your computer screen. Whether you’re volunteering with your partner or friend or tutoring underprivileged kids, human contact can be the difference between a so-so giving experience and a truly satisfying one.


Be generous

We’re not saying you should prioritize charitable giving over paying off debt. But there are ways to give no matter what your financial situation looks like, and they are worth seeking out. Giving can alter your perspective and let you take stock of all the things you have, which can make you feel rich, no matter what your bank account balance may be. You can give as little as $5 to a cause, or you can find organizations that need your time.



Remember: A tote bag won’t make you (that) happy

Given a choice, what would you pick: A tote bag featuring puppies or an afternoon where you can play with puppies? Experiences often trump things when it comes to happiness with purchases, and the same goes for the gifts we receive — including those from charities enticing us to volunteer or donate. If you’re trying to narrow down the best way to give, focus on the charities that allow you up-close access to the people the organization is helping. That experience will give you way more lasting satisfaction than any free gift they could toss your way.


Intrigued? Watch Liz’s entire TED talk here!



Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia who researches how time, money, and technology shape human happiness. She is also the scientific advisor for Happy Money, a financial company that combines psychology and money to help people live happier lives. Have a question for Liz? Write to her at and check back every Wednesday for her next column.



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