Better Living Through Philanthropy
> 3/24/2008 10:25:32 AM

Money, to the chagrin of many an aspiring MBA, does not make you happy. Those who don't have to worry about paying their bills and affording a decent meal are more satisfied on the whole than those who do, but anyone expecting a bliss born of financial stability and an endless supply of high-end consumer goods will most likely be disappointed if they manage to reach their goal, because the initial thrill of big bucks will always fade as novelty loses its luster. The fact is that we will always want most what we don't have (or can't afford). But despite the persistence of the grass-is-greener mentality, money can apparently buy happiness, with a caveat: one must spend it on others.

Common sense and religious dictum have long held that helping someone in need will improve our own self-image and make us more likely to repeat the same behaviors in the future. But a series of studies published in the journal Science has more specifically revealed the psychological benefits created by the act of giving even a small portion of one's own money, time, and resources for the benefit of someone else, whether it be a less fortunate stranger or an unsuspecting friend. An initial survey of more than 600 Americans focusing on relative expenditures and levels of satisfaction found that spending on others correlated very closely with positive perceptions of one's own life. In a second study, researchers interviewed 16 employees at a Boston business both before and after they received hefty bonuses. As in the first survey, those who ultimately reported the greatest levels of happiness were the same individuals who spent the most of their bonuses in "pro-social" or overtly generous ways.

The final study involved 46 student volunteers who received envelopes containing either $5 or $20 and were instructed to either consider it a bonus for themselves or find ways to spend it on others. Later, all participants were interviewed and asked to gague their own degree of satisfaction with the day's events. Researchers found that spending it on or donating the money to others was by far the largest predictor of a positive self-assessment. The amount of money that each student received did not seem to matter at all. All three of these studies support the idea that money earned, received, or saved does not influence one's state of mind as profoundly as the amount that's given to the interests of others. This concept is not limited to tax-deductible donations to the Red Cross or the YMCA. It can include acts as small as buying a gift for a friend or taking a relative to dinner. Researchers compared the benefits of philanthropy to those of exercise: one day at the gym provides an initial boost in health and confidence, but a steady regimen will improve one's quality of life in nearly every way.

Those with the greatest resource pools are often, predictably, the biggest givers. Famous models of large-scale philanthropy are easy to come by: entrepeneurs Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, both of whom consistently sit atop the "world's wealthiest" list, have long publicized their own big-budget generosity. Call it a very expensive PR strategy if you will, but their public profiles have not been the prime beneficiaries of the millions contributed to, for example, AIDS research and health care technologies for the third world. Oprah Winfrey is unquestionably one of the world's best-known faces and most brilliant self-promoters. She's most recently drawn attention for her philanthropic tendencies, and a new TV mini-series that will inevitably be viewed by millions is predicated on her own fashionable generosity. "Oprah's Big Give" follows a fairly traditional game show structure with a twist: contestants compete to see who can give away the most money in varied locations across the country. While the show itself amounts to little more than an infomercial for all things O, and includes all the self-congratulatory hallmarks of "reality" television, its sentiment is admirable.

It's very true that we must look out for ourselves before we can do the same for others. But our instinctual urge to ensure the survival and comfort of our own above all else often leads us to underestimate the power of selflessness or, rather, the acts of generosity that lie as close to that ideal as our flawed humanity allows. If these studies succeed in convincing a few people to devote even a slightly larger portion of their time and income to a cause or individual of their own choosing, it will have been well worth the scant funding that it required.

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