A growing body of research shows generosity does more than give us a temporary happiness boost – it improves our sense of wellbeing, makes us healthier and helps us to live longer, too.
The messages society feeds us about what should make us happy – wealth, success and achievement – are misguided. In fact, once our basic material needs are met and we’re assured of regular food, adequate shelter and a basic degree of financial security, wealth has a negligible effect on wellbeing, says Leeds Beckett University psychologist Steve Taylor.
“If anything, it appears there is a relationship between non-materialism and wellbeing,” Taylor says. “While possessing wealth and material goods doesn’t lead to happiness, giving them away does.”
Volunteering is one of the best things we can do to improve our mental and physical health. Taylor says the health benefits of volunteering have been found to be greater than those resulting from taking up exercise.
“Ignore the ‘happiness-means-consumption’ messages we’re bombarded with,” Taylor says.
“If you really want to enhance your wellbeing, don’t try to accumulate money in your bank account, and don’t treat yourself to material goods you don’t really need. Be generous and altruistic, increase the amount of money you give to people in need, give more of your time to volunteering, or spend more time helping people or behaving more kindly.
“A lifestyle of generosity and under-consumption may not suit the needs of economists and politicians – but it will certainly make us happier.”
Give it up for pleasure
In a telling study, neuroscientist Jordan Grafman scanned the brains of 17 volunteers to test what happens when people act generously. He found the same parts of the brain that activate when we eat chocolate or have sex, spark up when we donate to charity.
As well as stoking the pleasure zones of our brains, being generous has been found to bring a general sense of wellbeing – especially when it means you get to connect with others while you’re doing it.
Meanwhile, a study led by University of British Columbia psychologist Elizabeth Dunn found people who’d been given a cafe voucher were happier if they gave it to a friend rather than used it themselves – but only if they went to the cafe with that friend and shared the experience.
People also tend to get a bigger happiness boost when they see the positive impacts of their generosity and feel like they’re making a real difference. Dunn found that charities delivering on specific promises hold the most appeal – a pledge that every $10 donation will be used to buy a mosquito net for a child at risk of malaria is more meaningful than a general promise of improving the health of impoverished children.
Former naturopath Juliette Wright knows all too well the feel-good benefits of giving.
Wright, named Local Hero 2015 in the Australian of the Year awards, launched a trailblazing non-profit website, Givit, in 2009 to connect “those who have with those in need”.
Using social media to spread the word, Wright started with 10 charities and invited them to list the goods and services they needed. The first donation – a microwave – came within 10 minutes. Today, almost 220,000 vulnerable and disadvantaged people have been helped through Givit donations.
“When I started Givit, I had one goal – to make giving easy,” Wright tells MiNDFOOD. “I wanted to alleviate the effects of poverty by ensuring every charity has what it needs for those they’re supporting through the simple act of giving … and what better way to do this than online?”
Wright loves waking up each day knowing people are donating. “It is an amazingly uplifting experience to help someone else who desperately needs it,” she says. “Charities are also feeling supported and recipients are given dignity and love with their new, good-quality donation. That is incredibly rewarding.”
Wright says she’s touched every day by the stories behind the requested items – each listed item comes with a description of who needs it and why. Givit then uses social media to share some of the good news that comes from the donations.
“A personal favourite was when soccer boots were given to a young refugee boy struggling to fit in at school due to language and cultural barriers,” Wright says. “He was very talented and playing soccer allowed him to go from zero to hero with the other children.”
All charities go through a registration and approval process and requests vary dramatically – from a table and chairs for a domestic violence survivor wanting to start a new life with her children, to boxes of teabags for volunteers who look after disabled children.
Some requests can sound like “wants” rather than “needs”, but Wright says hearing the stories behind them makes you realise what a difference the items can make. “An iPod is a luxury item for me, but for a boy with schizophrenia who hears voices in his head all day – music is his saviour.”
Wright has also launched Givit Kids for children to donate new or seldom-used items they don’t need to other youngsters and plans are under way to go global.
The generosity stakes
New Zealand outperforms Australia in the generosity stakes – but only just. Aotearoa ranks fifth in the world in the latest World Giving Index, while Australia comes in sixth. Myanmar and the USA share the top spot, while Canada and Ireland rank ahead of New Zealand and Australia.
The index ranks countries based on the percentage of people who regularly donate money to charity, volunteer their time and help a stranger in need.
Baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) are the kings of kindness when it comes to total dollars donated; Generation Xers (1964 to 1981) are catching up, but it’s the Millennials (early ’80s to early 2000s) who are changing the face of global giving.
According to global grant-making organisation CAF America, Millennials are the “show me” generation – they demand relevance from the charities they donate to and consider up-to-date online content to be the best indicator of this. The Movember Foundation successfully went online to raise funds for and awareness of the biggest health issues faced by men – prostate and testicular cancer, poor mental health and physical inactivity.
Last year’s Ice Bucket Challenge is another example of social media-fuelled giving gone wild. As well as generating countless videos of people dumping buckets of ice water on themselves, the campaign raised $220 million and set a new standard for charities using social media to spread the word.
Better with age
Every generation gains from the feel-good rewards that come with giving, but it seems older people benefit the most.
Lower mortality rates and reduced rates of depression are clear outcomes for those who volunteer later in life, but studies show these people also enjoy greater functional ability and life satisfaction than others.
Volunteering not only provides the physical and social activity people need to feel good, but a sense of purpose at a time when their social roles are changing.
The health of people who volunteer a lot of time – about 100 hours a year – is most likely to show improvement than those who do less, reports also show.
But while Australians do well on the global scale of giving, most of us could do more. Sociologist Christian Smith, co-author of The Paradox of Generosity, thinks people would be more giving if they didn’t see the donation of money or time as a loss to themselves.
“They don’t realise it’s good for them, that it would benefit them and not just other people,” Smith says.
The book sums up the findings of one of the most comprehensive studies on giving ever carried out – The Science of Generosity Initiative – where researchers tracked the lifestyles and spending habits of 2000 people over five years.
It turns out the percentage of people’s salaries they give away is unrelated to how much they earn.
“As people earn more and more money, they don’t give relatively higher proportions of their income,” Smith explains.
“It’s really not the case that a lot of people don’t give because they can’t afford it. They think they don’t have the money or the time but they could be more generous.”