Giving feels good! Really, it does.

By Patrick Slattery

"Helping others takes countless forms, from giving money to charity to helping a stranger dig his car out of the snow, and springs from countless motivations, from deep-rooted empathy to a more calculated desire for public recognition.” This begins a 2009 Harvard Business School study entitled “Feeling Good about Giving: The Benefits (and Costs) of Self-Interested Charitable Behavior (Anik, Aknin, Norton, Dunn). Does giving make the donor feel happier? Do tax breaks and public recognition promote giving or undermine the intrinsic quality of giving?

Experimental studies as far back as 1972 (Isen and Levin) demonstrate that happier people give more to charity and people in need. Altruism is spurred on by the giver’s own sense of competence and the positive mood that results from their personal successes. These happy donors tend to have a more optimistic outlook on life and feel that their contributions to charity make a difference in the lives of those impacted. Supporting a cause that resonates with the donor also keeps that person up to date and educated on issues of social injustice. Giving to charity can strengthen the donor’s spiritual life, especially where their faith places a high value on good deeds ( The powerful sense of their community impact also drives donors to volunteer more. Research supports that volunteering enhances the happiness experienced by the donor (Batson, 1987; 1991) and can lead to further helping behavior. Comparatively, feelings of sadness, when elicited by images of suffering and pain, heighten empathic emotions in the donor and can also enhance giving. The stories of our KidsPeace children are often heartbreaking. From physical and sexual abuse at the hand of a family member to extreme poverty, educational failures and mental health struggles, our kids face enormous challenges. When people see the pain in the eyes of the children we serve, they want to help, they want to give and they want to make a positive impact on their lives.

It seems clear that happier people give more to charity, but does giving make you happier or healthier? Let’s go back even further in history. “Aristotle argued that the goal of life was to achieve ‘eudaemonia,’ which is closely tied to modern conceptions of happiness.” This term goes beyond the pleasures of life and also focuses on the happiness created by the “successful performance of their moral duties,” (Anik et al). Now jump to modern times. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) data show that the parts of the brain that display feelings of happiness are activated when giving money to charity. In a study by Harbaugh, Mayr and Burghart (2007), the “reward” regions of the brain were activated when subjects made the decision to give $100 to a local charity rather than spend the money on themselves. Further evidence supports that spending on others results in a deeper sense of happiness than spending on oneself. Stony Brook University professor Stephen Post, in his book “Why Good Things Happen to Good People,” reports that “giving to others has been shown to increase health benefits in people with chronic illness, including HIV and multiple sclerosis.” In a 2006 study by Rachel Piferi, of Johns Hopkins University, and Kathleen Lawler, of the University of Tennessee, they found that giving to charity reduces overall stress levels of the donor and lowers blood pressure. Giving to charity is also linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone that induces a feeling of warmth and satisfaction (also released during sex and breastfeeding). In a German study (Meier and Stutzer, 2008), “higher levels of volunteer work were associated with higher levels of overall life satisfaction.” The labor of volunteerism promotes improved physical health and the strengthening of social networks, friendships and spiritual connectedness. Work by Lyubomirsky, Tkach and Sheldon (2004) focused on the benefits of “random acts of kindness” in a randomized study that showed that people who engaged in such acts where “significantly happier than controls.” Doing good deeds for others, especially when unsolicited and limited in any tangible reward to the giver, results in feelings of happiness. The KidsPeace Charity Soccer Invitational, hosted on our Orchard Hills Campus in Pennsylvania, relies on dozens of volunteers each August to make the tournament run well. These are often 12- to 14-hour days in hot conditions working concessions, parking and field marshalling. Our volunteers come back year after year with smiles on their faces. They see old friends, make new friends, get some exercise and enjoy the best cheeseburgers in the area, all while impacting the lives of children, most of whom they will never meet.

If happier people give more and giving makes you happier, then is a circular pattern created? Is there a positive feedback loop between happiness and giving? Simply remembering a charitable act induces feelings of happiness. This feeling often spurs the next donation to charity and the cycle repeats. What some call “pro-social” spending and general feelings of happiness can “fuel each other in a circular fashion.” Despite this evidence, Dunn et al. (2008) showed that people erroneously believe that spending money on themselves makes them happier than spending money on others, suggesting that there is ample room for people to be “educated” to the contrary. Common sense and scientific evidence are clear that giving to charity makes us feel good especially when we see the impact of our giving. At KidsPeace, we see this every day in our foster care offices. Donors who come to our foster parent appreciation dinners or graduation ceremonies see firsthand how the work of KidsPeace changes lives. We see in them the happiness that comes from
The “RED” campaign, supported by rock legend Bono of the band U2, ties product purchases of items such as iPhones with a portion of the proceeds going to charity. This tactic combines the immediate gratification of purchasing something for yourself with the more intrinsic happiness of knowing that you are also helping a charity. Participants in any of our special event fundraisers at KidsPeace are essentially doing the same thing. From our golf tournaments to 5K charity races, participants experience the fun of the day knowing that they are also helping KidsPeace fulfill its mission to give hope, help and healing to children, families and communities.

Overall happiness, physical and spiritual health and the social bonds that bind communities are enhanced and promoted by charitable giving.

Patrick Slattery, M.B.A., is the Director of Development for KidsPeace. Now in his 22nd year, Patrick has served the organization is a variety of roles. As a college psychology student, he worked as a summer counselor and intern in the residential program. Upon graduation, Patrick was hired as a Child Care Counselor II and promoted a year later to Assistant Treatment Team Supervisor and eventually Treatment Team Supervisor of a residential program. After eight years of direct care, he moved into the Client Services Department to help market KidsPeace programs to various stakeholders. Patrick then moved into various roles within KidsPeace Business Development as a Market Researcher Administrator and eventually as the Director of Business Development. Patrick currently oversees the fundraising activities of KidsPeace. Outside of his professional endeavors, Patrick and his wife Nicky have been married for 16 years and have two sons, Noah and Max. He has also been a two-time candidate for the Pennsylvania State Legislature.