If there’s one thing everyone on the planet wants to do, it’s to be happy. As it turns out, giving is an excellent way to achieve this.
Of course, being the one receiving money, gifts, or support from others will make us happier in some way. This is usually the very reason why a person would want to give us something in the first place. But those who know the secret behind giving might have a second motive - making themselves happy. There is a lot of scientific evidence that giving in practically any form has enormous benefits for the giver. This includes a happier mood, a greater sense of wellbeing, lower stress levels, lower blood pressure, and even better longevity.
In this article, we’ll explain the science behind why giving makes people happy. We'll also tell you five easy ways you can give to be a happier person.
- My personal experience of how giving leads to happiness
- Studies on the effects of giving on happiness
- Five ways giving makes you happy
- Closing words
My personal experience of how giving leads to happiness
When I was a university student, I signed up to volunteer at a senior center. Other teenagers spent their Friday nights working on the next day’s hangover. I rolled senior citizens in squeaky wheelchairs into the center’s lounge. I then spent the next two hours playing an assortment of music for them on the piano.
It’s certainly not the first thing you think of when you hear “teenager’s Friday night.” I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments when I second-guessed my decision. But then I saw the senior swaying along, clapping, grinning and even complimenting me. That made everything worth it.
The point was to liven up their evening, but I almost feel as if I got the better end of the bargain!
Studies on the effects of giving on happiness
Many studies have examined how giving affects happiness. Here are some of the most important ones.
Study finds giving to others is associated with increased happiness
If someone gave you $5 to spend by the end of the day, do you think you’d be happier spending it on yourself or on someone else? If you’re like most people in the experiment conducted by Dunn, Aknin and Norton in 2008, your answer might sound a little like Michael Buble’s “Nobody But Me”.
But the researchers found the opposite to be true. In the experiment, they approached people on a university campus and offered them either $5 or $20. They told half the people to spend the money on themselves and the other half to spend it on someone else. That evening, those who had spent the money on others said they felt much happier throughout the day than those who had spent it on themselves.
This came as a surprise to a second group of participants in the study. They had predicted that spending money on ourselves is what would make us happiest. They also assumed that levels of happiness would increase along with the money spent. But thankfully for our wallets, there was no difference in happiness whether people spent $20 or $5.
Study finds giving increases happiness in both rich and poor countries
It’s easy to give when you have a lot to begin with - but what if you barely had enough for yourself?
The study described above was conducted on a university campus in North America. The probability of finding people there with a good quality of life is very high. If the study had been conducted in a developing country, would the findings have been the same?
A group of researchers had this very question. They conducted experiments across the globe to look for a universal link between giving and happiness.
In short, they found overwhelming evidence that giving leads to happiness. The giver’s cultural background, social status, or financial situation made no difference. This held true for 120 out of 136 countries surveyed. They also got the same results across very different countries:
- Canada, ranking in the top 15% of countries by per capita income.
- Uganda, ranking in the bottom 15%.
- India, a rapidly developing country.
- South Africa, where over a fifth of the participants didn't have enough money to feed themselves or their families.
Study finds giving makes children happy too
Another important question is whether giving makes young children happy, too. If this wasn’t the case, its effect on happiness might be just a positive association learned through education and culture.
Well, when there’s a question in science, there’s a study looking for answers.
Of course, money means nothing to a two-year-old (except maybe something to chew on). So researchers used puppets and treats instead. They created various scenarios:
- The children received treats.
- The children watched the puppet receive treats.
- The children were told to give a “found” treat to the puppet.
- The children were asked to give away one of their own treats.
The scientists coded the children’s happiness. Again, they found the same results. Children were happiest when they sacrificed their own resources to give to others.
Five ways giving makes you happy
Clearly, the evidence shows that giving creates happiness nearly universally. You can start using this to improve your wellbeing as early as today - but how exactly should you give?
Here are 5 ways that prove giving can increase your happiness.
1. Give to charity
Donating money is one of the first things that pops into mind when people hear the words “giving back.” And as the evidence confirms, this is an excellent way to make yourself happier.
Making donations to charity activates the reward center of the brain. This suggests that it is inherently rewarding. Maybe now you’ll know what to do with that unexpected bonus at work!
But you might wonder if having a selfish aim ruins the benefits of donating. Shouldn’t it be done just for the sake of helping those in need? You’d be right. In fact, donating makes us happiest when we can choose whether we want to donate. In another study, “people experienced happier moods when they gave more money away - but only if they had a choice about how much to give.”
So before you pull out your checkbook, make sure that you’re giving from the heart and not because you’re “supposed to”. But there’s no need to feel guilty if one of your reasons to donate is your own happiness.
After all, happier people tend to give more. So by becoming happier, you are also becoming a more generous person who will continue to do more good. And at the end of the day, a charity gets a valuable donation, and you get more happiness - if that’s not a win-win, what is?
Here are some specific ways to give to charities:
- Make a donation (however small) to a cause or charity you care about.
- Donate gently used clothes you no longer use.
- Donate non-perishable food items to a local food drive.
- Donate school supplies to a local school.
- Donate books to a local library.
- Buy what you need from brands that donate a portion of their profits to good causes.
- On your next birthday, ask guests to make a donation in your name rather than buy you a gift.
- Organize a bake sale to raise money for a cause you believe in.
2. Give help and support to friends and family
Giving doesn’t always mean spending money. Time, help, and support are three excellent ways to give that don’t cost a single cent. These, too, have shown drastic benefits to health and happiness.
Giving social support to others brings us many long-term benefits:
- greater self-esteem.
- elevated self-efficacy.
- less depression.
- reduced stress.
- lower blood pressure.
Elderly couples who give practical support to others even have a decreased risk of dying. It’s interesting to note that receiving support from others doesn't reduce the risk of death.
Would you actively try to be more supportive if it also meant being healthy and happy? There are endless ways to do it, so have a look around you and use your creativity!
Here are some ways to support others in order to increase your happiness:
- Message a friend to tell them how much you care about them.
- Ask someone how they are and really listen to their answer.
- Give someone a compliment.
- Call a friend you haven’t seen in a while to ask how they are doing.
- Help your family or roommates with housework if they’re busy or stressed.
- Babysit for a friend or relative’s children.
- Mow your neighbor’s lawn, rake their leaves, or shovel their driveway.
- Help a neighbor with repairs.
- Support a friend who’s working on a life change.
Volunteering is an excellent way to give that boosts your happiness. There is overwhelming evidence supporting this claim. The best example could be the study conducted by United Healthcare published in 2017.
This study found that 93% of people who volunteered over the previous year felt happier as a result. The study also found that of all the respondents who had spent time volunteering:
- 89% reported an expanded worldview.
- 88% noticed increased self-esteem.
- 85% developed friendships through volunteering.
- 79% experienced less stress.
- 78% felt greater control over their health and wellbeing.
- 75% felt physically healthier.
- 34% could better manage a chronic illness.
Several studies found similar results for both the younger and older generations.
- Teenagers who volunteered saw significant improvements in both cardiovascular health and self-esteem.
- Older people who volunteer seem to have a higher quality of life.
- Older people who volunteer have reduced risk of dementia and fewer cognitive problems.
- Older people who volunteer for at least 2 organizations are 44% less likely to die.
Here are examples of how you can volunteer to benefit your own happiness:
- Walk dogs at a local animal shelter.
- Help kids with their homework.
- Offer free lessons in something you’re good at.
- Offer to sew up old clothes and stuffed toys.
- Provide IT help to local adults.
- Read to kids in local hospitals.
- Spend time with senior citizens in local senior centers.
- Find a local fundraiser and offer to help.
- Offer your skills to a non-profit organization.
4. Give back to the environment
Giving is usually directed at other people, but what if you’re not in the mood to socialize? No problem - the environment is another great recipient.
Even without giving anything, spending just two hours per week in nature has a myriad of excellent health benefits:
- lowering blood pressure.
- reducing stress.
- enhancing the immune system.
- increasing self-esteem.
- reducing anxiety.
- improving your mood.
- speeding up healing processes in the body.
But you can do one better and give the environment a little help while you’re there. Environmental volunteers have much fewer depressive symptoms after volunteering.
The environment is in dire need of love, so there are possibilities abound for this kind of giving, both in and out of nature.
Here are some ways to help the environment for greater happiness:
- Pick up trash in a local natural area.
- Walk or take the bike instead of driving short distances.
- Choose eco-friendly packaging and delivery when you order online (if offered).
- Switch to buying your groceries from a plastic-free or waste-free shop or local market.
- Buy what you need from environmentally conscious brands.
- Recycle as much as you can.
- Reduce your meat consumption and eat more plant-based food.
Here is another article of ours that discusses how sustainability and happiness are linked.
5. Give to the world at large
If you’re stuck on ideas for how to give and be happy, rest assured that it doesn't need to be sophisticated or special. Basically, any act that makes you a better person and the world a better place will do.
A study compared the effects of performing two different types of acts of kindness:
- to benefit directly another person.
- acts of “world kindness”, benefiting humanity or the world more broadly.
Both types of acts had the same happiness-enhancing effects. They also had a much greater impact on happiness than doing acts of kindness for oneself.
“World kindness” can be a little tricky to define. If you’re trying to do something nice for anyone - or even no one in particular - you’re on the right track. Here is an article dedicated to always choosing kindness.
If you're looking for specific examples on how to give happiness in general, here are some examples:
- Donate blood.
- Pay the bill for the next customer at the gas station, cafe, or a place of your choosing.
- Leave sticky notes with positive messages in different places.
- Sign a petition for a cause you believe in.
- Share posts promoting good causes on your social media.
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Giving can make you happy. Over 50 studies have already shown that giving has positive effects on happiness. You are not only working to make yourself a happier person but also making others happier. Ultimately, you create a happier world for everyone.
Now I want to hear from you! Do you know any stories that show giving happiness to others improves your own happiness as well? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below!