Do transformational gifts to charity make us happier than transactional ones?

Do you remember the research last year that concluded that giving money to charity made people happier?

Katya Andresen points us to a Drake Bennett post that updates that research, and the additional information he provides nuances that earlier conclusion quite a bit.

Turns out that it’s not giving money to charity that makes people happier but rather giving money to other people (so-called “pro-social spending”), which may include charitable giving:

First, they surveyed 632 Americans on their general happiness, along with what they spent their money on, and found that higher “prosocial spending” – gifts for others and donations to charity – was indeed correlated with higher self-reported happiness. They followed this up with a more detailed look at 16 workers before and after they received a profit-sharing bonus from their company. They found that the only factor that reliably predicted which workers would be happy six to eight weeks after the bonus was their prosocial spending – the more money people spent on charity and gifts for others, the happier they were.

Surprisingly, no research has apparently yet been done that differentiates whether the types of gifts we give to charity make us more or less happy.

In other words, if I donate $10 because a charity sends me address labels in the mail, does that yield the same level of happiness as if I give $10 to a family from my church who is struggling?

Take it a step further and ask:

If I give $2 million to build a building for a homeless shelter (who then, perhaps coincidentally, engraves my name on it), will that yield the same amount of happiness as if I designate that that same $2 million be spent on discipling and rehabilitating the homeless people who are normally helped inside of the shelter’s existing building–people whom I then meet because along with donating the $2 million I also decide to volunteer to mentor homeless people in the shelter’s rehabilitation program?

Sum it up and ask:

Is all charitable happiness created equally?

Drake’s post offers some tantalizing clues that certain types of giving might be more happiness-inducing than other types:

Another theme that has emerged in similar research is that money spent on experiences – vacations or theater tickets or meals out – makes you happier than money spent on material goods. Leaf Van Boven, an associate psychology professor at the University of Colorado, and Thomas Gilovich, chair of the psychology department at Cornell University, have run surveys asking people about past purchases and how happy they made them.
“We generally found very consistent evidence that experiences made people happier than material possessions they had invested in,” says Van Boven.
Why? For one thing, Van Boven and Gilovich argue, experiences are inherently more social – when we vacation or eat out or go to the movies it’s usually with other people, and we’re liable also to relive the experience when we see those people again. And past experiences can work as a sort of social adhesive even with people who didn’t participate with us, providing stories and conversational fodder in a way that a new watch or speedboat rarely can.
In addition, other work by Van Boven suggests that experiences don’t usually trigger the same sort of pernicious comparisons that material possessions do. We like our car less whenever we catch a glimpse of our neighbor’s newer, nicer car, but we don’t like our honeymoon any less because our neighbor went on a fancier one.
And while we quickly grow accustomed to a new suit or a bigger house, no matter how much we originally loved it, experiences instead tend to get burnished in our memory – a year after a vacation, we look back not on the stress of dealing with lost luggage or the fights over which way the hotel was, but the beauty of the scenery or the exotic flavors of the food.

Another theme that has emerged in similar research is that money spent on experiences – vacations or theater tickets or meals out – makes you happier than money spent on material goods. Leaf Van Boven, an associate psychology professor at the University of Colorado, and Thomas Gilovich, chair of the psychology department at Cornell University, have run surveys asking people about past purchases and how happy they made them.

“We generally found very consistent evidence that experiences made people happier than material possessions they had invested in,” says Van Boven.

Why? For one thing, Van Boven and Gilovich argue, experiences are inherently more social – when we vacation or eat out or go to the movies it’s usually with other people, and we’re liable also to relive the experience when we see those people again. And past experiences can work as a sort of social adhesive even with people who didn’t participate with us, providing stories and conversational fodder in a way that a new watch or speedboat rarely can.

In addition, other work by Van Boven suggests that experiences don’t usually trigger the same sort of pernicious comparisons that material possessions do. We like our car less whenever we catch a glimpse of our neighbor’s newer, nicer car, but we don’t like our honeymoon any less because our neighbor went on a fancier one.

And while we quickly grow accustomed to a new suit or a bigger house, no matter how much we originally loved it, experiences instead tend to get burnished in our memory – a year after a vacation, we look back not on the stress of dealing with lost luggage or the fights over which way the hotel was, but the beauty of the scenery or the exotic flavors of the food.

If this so-called “conceptual consumption” brings more happiness than, say, buying a big-screen TV, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that charitable giving that draws us deeply into the cause, into relationship with others who are passionate about the cause, into personal interaction with those impacted by the cause, would make us happier than checkbook philanthropy with associated naming opportunities?

If buying a building is less satisfying than hiking through Mayan ruins, then why would giving money so that a charity can build a building be more satisfying than traveling with that charity to impact the cause firsthand?

This is not to rag on capital campaign gifts by any means…though it is meant to rag on capital campaign gifts that do not bubble over out of deep personal experience with the cause for which the building is being built. Never, in other words, ask a donor to give money to fund a building that they will never volunteer inside of.

One suspects the happiness researches may not have had a lot of Transformational Giving experiences, as their charitable imagination appears somewhat limited:

One intriguing possibility is that workplaces could change to encourage more prosocial spending in their workers. Dunn and Norton have argued, for example, that companies can improve their employees’ emotional well-being by shifting some of their budget for charitable giving so that individual employees are given sums to donate, leaving them happier even as the charities of their choice benefit.

Now let me ask you honestly:

Would your happiness really improve that much if the owner of your business said, “Here’s $50 of my money. You get to choose where I donate it”?

What about a matching gift program, where the owner of your business matches non-church gifts you make to charity, up to a certain amount? (That’s what Mission Increase Foundation does for its employees.)

Further, what about a matching time program where the owner of your business gives you a certain amount of time off from work to match volunteer time you’re giving on your own?

Most transformationally of all, what about a matching time and money program where the owner of the business does both?

If it makes for happier (and thus more productive and longer-tenured) employees, why not?

All of these ideas hinge, of course, on the premise that not all charitable giving is created equal when it comes to improving your happiness. That, it seems to me, is the next frontier of happy-giving research.

Until that’s done, enjoy this short story from a dear sister of ours that verifies what the happiness researchers will undoubtedly one day prove: Gifts where our hands come attached to the check make us happiest of all.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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