“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” – Winston Churchill
As a kid, there seemed no greater joy than receiving a gift. The anticipation and suspense of unwrapping a present ranked as one of the greatest feelings. Interestingly, there is another action that has proven to generate even greater feelings: giving.
Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, found that the most satisfying way to use money is to invest in others. Whether donating to a charity, giving someone a dollar, or buying a stranger lunch, the specificity doesn’t matter because the context is the same: giving. In countries rich and poor, research shows that people derive greater joy from giving money than receiving. While it can seem difficult to articulate, we feel wealthier and better when we go beyond ourselves to enrich the life of someone else.
In countries rich and poor, research shows that people derive greater joy from giving money than receiving. While it can seem difficult to articulate, we feel wealthier and better when we go beyond ourselves to enrich the life of someone else.
Stephen G. Post, author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping, coined the term “Giver’s Glow,” which accurately describes what we feel from giving. The “Giver’s Glow” also provides insight to what happens inside our brain that causes us to “glow.” Post explains that when we give and perform philanthropic acts, our brains release a variety of positive chemicals “including dopamine, endorphins that give people a sense of euphoria and oxytocin, which is associated with tranquility, serenity or inner peace.”
Post explains that when we give and perform philanthropic acts, our brains release a variety of positive chemicals “including dopamine, endorphins that give people a sense of euphoria and oxytocin, which is associated with tranquility, serenity or inner peace.” However, there is a catch.
Giving with the incentive to solely benefit yourself will not produce the positive effects of giving in a heartfelt, selfless manner. This is why the amount and type of the donation—whether $1, $10,000, or spending time volunteering—doesn’t matter as much as the intention behind a philanthropic act. A genuine desire to better someone’s life, however small, releases feel-good chemicals in the giver’s brain.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, arguably one of the most profound books ever written, Viktor Frankl reveals how we can derive meaning in even the darkest circumstances—and one of the ways to do so is through serving others. In the book, he explores a fascinating correlation between meaningfulness and happiness.
Through the act of giving, we find happiness because we create a deeper meaning rooted in who we are as individuals, how we relate to our fellow man, and how we appreciate life.
Power of Gratitude
There is a great deal of psychological research that has been done which shows how gratitude is correlated with higher levels of happiness. Gratitude stems from the latin word gratia, which, depending on the context, means grace, graciousness, and gratefulness.
Through expressing gratitude for the good we see in our lives, in others, the myriad wonders in nature, we recognize someone or something outside of ourselves that brings us joy. And in this process, we connect to something greater than ourselves—whether another person, nature, or a higher power.
As explained above, this practice of gratitude makes us feel just as good—if not better—than the person or thing for which we’re expressing our gratitude for.
In one of my personal favorite Ted talks “The Happy secret to better work,” Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor reveals that simply writing 3 things you’re grateful, on a daily basis, for a period of 21 days, causes a neural pathway to be created in our brain so that facilitates our ability to focus on the abundance in our lives, as opposed to things that may be lacking.
“What you focus on expands, and when you focus on the goodness in your life, you create more of it. Opportunities, relationships, even money flowed my way when I learned to be grateful no matter what happened in my life.” – Oprah Winfrey
A study described in the New York Times captures the essence of this quote perfectly:
“Researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies have shown the same pattern and led to the same conclusion. If you want a truly happy holiday, choose to keep the “thanks” in Thanksgiving, whether you feel like it or not.”
Give yourself the gift of giving thanks and expressing gratitude! Whether sending appreciation to someone through a text message, buying someone a meal, or giving to a charity, see what happens when you choose to act on giving in a way that resonates with you personally.
Your intention behind the giving is the most important part! What we focus on grows…choose gratitude!
Personal ending note: For over a year now, I’ve kept a gratitude journal. I initially wrote three things I was grateful for every morning, and recently changed it to five things.
While I don’t have the means to measure my own change in happiness, I can say with conviction that this gratitude practice is an essential part of my happiness and feelings of well-being. As Shawn Achor suggested, try it for 21 days.
 Flynn, Francis J. “Research: Can Money Buy Happiness?” Stanford Graduate School of Business. Stanford Graduate School of Business, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.
 Renter, Elizabeth. “What Generosity Does to Your Brain and Life Expectancy.” U.S. News and World Report. N.p., n.d. Web.