Philanthropy Is Good For You

You may have heard the buzz this week about Giving Tuesday, a nationwide movement to encourage Americans to donate to charities the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Or maybe you came across an iconic bell ringer standing next to a bucket to collect donations at your local shopping center.

On the whole, it’s a popular time of year for charitable donations. Some people make donations for tax purposes before the end of the calendar year. Others incorporate giving into Christmas traditions or make an effort to spread some holiday cheer to those who are less fortunate.

Given all of these opportunities for charity, are Americans actually making more donations? And what is the effect on the giver?

The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy published a new analysis this month that tracks charitable giving in the U.S. Overall, they found the percentage of U.S. adults who donated to charity dropped from 66 percent in 2000 to 53 percent in 2016. Much of this decline is attributed to a dip in giving that occurred after the Great Recession, which took place from 2007 to 2009.

The analysis found that those with higher education levels—specifically undergraduate or graduate degrees—are more likely to donate to charities compared to those with lower education levels. And, not surprisingly, those who earn more money are more likely to make donations.

And, it turns out, there is credible evidence that givers experience benefits from their acts of charity.

Giving is positively related to life satisfaction. According to a 2017 study funded by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, the more people give (as a percentage of their household income) the more satisfaction they feel. In fact, a 2008 study conducted by researchers from Harvard and the University of British Columbia found that spending money on others leads to a lasting improvement in overall happiness. Happiness is more likely to soar when givers are aware of the positive impacts their gifts have had, another study found.

All of these good feelings most likely occur because charitable activities trigger neural activity in areas of the brain that are linked to reward processing—the same areas that are activated by pleasures like eating and sex, according to a 2007 study published in the journal Science.

The benefits extend beyond giving. Helping behaviors such as running errands, cooking meals, and providing child care actually led to reductions in mortality rates, according to a longitudinal study by researchers at the University of Buffalo.

The bottom line: Giving is good for you. If you can find a way to share some of what you have with others, both you and the recipient will reap the benefits.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.

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