Why You Feel Good Giving to Charity

September 15, 2015

GivingThe old adage "You can’t buy happiness" may be wrong. While science has shown that having more money doesn’t necessarily make you a happier person, giving it away just might.

Case in point: A study in Science examined the impact of how we spend money on happiness. The researchers started with a company that gave bonuses to all its employees. The amount of each bonus varied based on a percentage of the employee’s salary. Prior to receiving the bonus, each employee reported their general happiness and their income through a survey. The bonuses were given out, and six weeks later the employees were again asked about their general happiness and income—but this time they were also asked about how they had spent their bonus.

The researchers broke the various ways of spending money into two subgroups: personal spending (money they spent on themselves) and prosocial spending (money spent on others through gifts and charity). The results showed that "the manner in which they spent that bonus was a more important predictor of their happiness than the size of the bonus itself."1

A Matter of Chemistry?

The reason for the surge in happiness may be chemical and biological. Scientists believe that when people engage in prosocial spending, they activate the pleasure center of their brain, releasing endorphins and the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin has been shown to lower stress and make individuals feel more connected to others. Furthermore, scientists believe that a single act may lead to a series of kind acts as an individual tries to maintain the good feeling of giving.

While oxytocin may affect how much or why we continue to donate, it can’t fully explain why we choose to donate in the first place. In another study, researchers tried to prompt the impulse to donate by using oxytocin. Half of the subjects were given oxytocin, and half were given a placebo. The subjects then played a game that allowed them to donate fake money to others. While those who received the oxytocin did not donate with greater frequency than those who received the placebo, "people infused with OT [oxytocin] were found to donate 48% more to charity than those given a placebo."2

Donating to charity may provide greater benefits to you than you realize. Many compare the feeling associated with donating to an elevated feeling of well-being experienced in exercising. This "runner’s high" can lower stress, help promote deeper connections and create overall life satisfaction.

While researchers continue to study the effect that donating has on the brain, the impact it has on the spirit is undeniable. By giving to others, we simultaneously help those less fortunate and acknowledge our own good fortune.

1 - Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin and Michael Norton, "Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness," Science, Volume 319, March 21, 2008.

2 - Jorge Barraza, Michael McCullough, Sheila Ahmadi and Paul Zak, "Ocytocin Infusion Increases Charitable Donations Regardless of Monetary Resources," Hormones and Behavior, Volume 60, July 2011.