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3 tips for donating money to increase happiness

Kelly Dilworth

As the end of the year approaches, you may be trying to ramp up your charitable donations. Before you give away your cash, think twice about where it’s going. You may be able to reap more satisfaction from your giving — and maximize your charitable contributions — if you think more strategically about where and how you give.

Here are three research-based tips for making the most of your holiday giving:
3 tips for donating money to increase happiness
1. Get specific
According to a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, people who seek out concrete, philanthropic causes — such as donating a certain number of books to an underfunded classroom — tend to be happier about their giving than those who donate money to more abstract goals, such as ending world hunger or increasing child literacy.

When you shrink your charitable goals into something more tangible, you’re more likely to feel as if you’ve accomplished something worthwhile and are making a real difference. Sinking money into bigger, more general causes, by contrast, could make it harder for you to envision the end result, making your contribution feel less significant.

Tip: Look for charities that break down in concrete terms exactly how your money will be spent. For example, the Against Malaria Foundation uses 100 percent of donations to buy insecticide-treated bed nets for people at high risk of contracting mosquito-borne malaria.

Similarly, the nonprofit group Red Basket connects donors to people who are facing medical emergencies or other personal disasters and need help paying their bills. You can learn more about the charities that are accepting donations by visiting research-based comparison sites, such as, GuideStar and Charity Navigator.

2. Tap into your social network
Research published last year in the International Journal of Happiness and Development found people feel best about their charitable giving when they give to someone they know or to a charity with which they feel a personal connection.

For example, if you give to a charity recommended by a friend or participate in a social media campaign such as last summer’s ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, you’re more likely to feel happier about your donation than if you donate to a random cause. Similarly, if you donate to a cause that makes you feel more connected to your community or to the person or group asking for extra help, your happiness is also likely to increase.

“Greater emotional payoffs seem to transpire when good deeds involve social connection,” write study authors Lara B. Aknin, Elizabeth W. Dunn, Gillian M. Sandstrom and Michael I. Norton in the report.  The more connected to other people a particular donation makes you feel, the more likely you are to emotionally benefit.

Tip: Ask your friends if they have any causes that are dear to their hearts or if they know of someone in need. Or consider getting involved with the nonprofit that you decided to help. Not only will you contribute more by giving away your time as well as your money; you’ll also feel more socially connected to that organization and happier about your contribution.  

3. Just say no
It can be hard to avoid the multitude of fundraising campaigns that are ubiquitous during the holidays, but don’t feel like you have to give every time you’re asked.

According to a study published in 2010 by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people feel more rewarded by their giving when they don’t feel pressured to do so.

“Helping others may elicit well-being, but only when the helping is choiceful or autonomous,” write study authors Netta Weinstein and Richard M. Ryan in the report.

So instead of giving money to your kid’s well-funded PTA or to your university’s alumni association simply because you feel obligated to contribute, you’re better off directing your spending to causes you really want to support.

Tip: Don’t feel guilty about saying no when a store clerk asks you to donate to a cause at
checkout or when a middle-school kid from a wealthy school district asks you to donate to the basketball team. You may temporarily feel like Scrooge, but by saying no, you’re freeing up money you can later spend on causes you care more about.  

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