How to Increase the Joy of Giving

Are you considering giving to a charity this holiday season? Before answering yes and getting your checkbook out, there is some research you should be aware of and tactics to consider!

Charitable giving is indeed a substantial industry in the United States. According to Giving USA, Americans contributed $390.05 billion to US-based charities in 2016. Giving is especially relevant at this time of year. For instance, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation partnered with Facebook to match $2 million in Facebook users’ donations on Giving Tuesday (November 28, 2017).

How to Increase the Joy of Giving | behavioral science

Photo Credit (Milada Vigerova / @mili_vigerova)

Your family members, friends, coworkers, and crimson-clad bell-ringers at your local grocery store might also be asking you to make a donation. It seems that people are especially happy and generous at the end of the year. What if you could experience this holiday cheer more frequently throughout the year?

Research overview

The popular saying that it’s “better to give than to receive” is scientifically supported. Researchers from the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business Schools conducted a series of experiments in which participants were tasked with either spending some amount of money on themselves, or on someone else. On average, participants reported feeling happier after spending money on others, regardless of the amount.

Professor Netta Weinstein led a research study that found giving leads to happiness, but only if we make the choice to give on our own. They allowed one group of participants to choose whether they wanted to help someone, while the other group of participants were told that they had to help someone. Participants who helped because they were told to reported significantly lower levels of happiness compared to those who chose to help someoneThis is why we may not feel very good after depositing a $5 bill into a Salvation Army bucket. Some may have felt that this decision to give was due more to external pressure than our own desire to give.

Research also shows that the happiness associated with giving is increased when one feels that they have made an impact.

If you read The Upside of Irrationality, you might recall that segmenting positive experiences makes them more enjoyable. Think of it this way: imagine you really enjoy chocolate cake, and you cut yourself a slice. That first bite is going to taste incredible and satisfying. Now imagine you immediately reach for another slice. How would it taste? Wouldn’t it taste much better if you waited a few days, weeks, or even months?

 Alternative tactics to the one-off holiday donation

Given this research, here is some practical advice to consider.

  1. Donate smaller amounts on a monthly basis. Giving to charity on a monthly basis enables you to feel the happiness of giving year-round as opposed to during the holiday season alone (similar to how eating the chocolate cake is more savory over the long-term rather than indulging it all in one setting). Donating monthly is easy to do; many organizations encourage this. Consider setting up a recurring reminder for yourself. This way, you are not forgetting about it, but rather are actively making the decision to donate and thus allowing yourself to feel the joy of giving.
  2. Be deliberate in choosing your charity if you are prone to give at the end of the year only when others ask you to. This unlocks the emotional benefit of giving, as you are donating because you want to, and not due to external pressure to do so.
  3. Track the impact of organizations you are considering donating to by leveraging websites like or This enables you to further enjoy being part of a cause that is making a difference.


It is amazing what a few simple tweaks can do to improve the experience of giving. It will make you far happier than giving to causes on an ad hoc basis. In all likelihood, these minor adjustments will also make the individuals associated with the causes you donate to happier as well. It’s an all-around win-win!


Ciara Lutz is a research associate at Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight, an applied behavioral science research lab that helps people be happier, healthier and wealthier. You can reach her at 


Aknin, L. B., Dunn, E. W., Whillans, A. V., Grant, A. M., & Norton, M. I. (2013). Making a difference matters: Impact unlocks the emotional benefits of prosocial spending. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 88, 90-95.

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319, 1687-1688.

Nelson, L. D., & Meyvis, T. (2008). Interrupted consumption: Disrupting adaptation to hedonic experiences, Journal of Marketing Research, 45, 654-664.

Weinstein, N., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). When helping helps: Autonomous motivation for prosocial behavior and its influence on well-being for the helper and recipient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(2), 222-244.