Generous Hearts, Charitable Mistakes

Most people have generous hearts but when it comes to charitable giving their mind can play tricks on them. Scientists have studied these mistakes and given them names: 1) The Martyrdom Effect and 2) The Unexpected Joy of Giving.

The martyrdom effect leads people to believe it is more noble to volunteer time than it is to simply give money. We are biased to admire more challenging ways of helping such as volunteering in a poor country, even when an easier way to give (writing a check) is far more valuable.

People tend to believe that it is too easy to “just write a check”. In fact, gifts of money often do more good than a single volunteer’s effort could.

Consider the difference in value between volunteering for ten days in Peru doing carpentry, nursing, or teaching children. If you fairly valued your labor at local hourly rates your services might be worth $10 to $15 a day or a cumulative $150 for a 10-day mission. The cost of that mission to you would involve airline tickets, hotels and food. The total could easily reach $2,500. A check for the same amount is easy to write and much appreciated. The $2,500 check would go a long ways in the highlands of Peru. It could cover nearly 17 local workers over the same 10-day period.

The joy of giving is often underestimated.

  • Most people assume the generosity involves sacrifice or that they are giving something up so someone else can have more.
  • Scientific studies have recently proven that people experience a big boost in happiness when they spend money on other people.

Consider the research recently done by Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia, where random people were handed envelopes containing from $5 to $15. For some, the envelope came with a note that told them to spend the money on themselves. Others were asked to spend the money on someone else. The people told to spend the money on themselves treated themselves to Starbucks or purchased a personal item like jewelry. The other half reported buying a friend a drink at Starbucks or giving the money to a needy person.

At the end of the day, the researchers called all the people to ask them to rate their happiness that day. The first surprising discovery was that the amount of money they received did not impact their happiness quotient one way or the other. What was even more surprising was that the people who spent the money on someone else were much happier.

We often assume that giving money away is a choice between our happiness and somebody else’s happiness. But we are built to feel good when we give. Not to mention that when we give, everyone wins.