At the end of each year, society focuses on charitable works and sharing with others—with mixed results. What is the secret to getting the most out of giving?
Subscribe to the Real Truth for FREE news and analysis.Subscribe Now
Money cannot buy happiness. Spending it on others does.
We all know this is intrinsically true. Even science proves that giving makes us happier than receiving. A person’s brain is more engaged when giving, specifically because of increased levels of the pleasure chemical dopamine.
Science aside, adults can remember happily receiving gifts as a child, and then growing up to relish even more in being the giver. The joy of seeing someone else appreciate a gift of service or sacrifice surpasses the pleasure of being on the receiving end.
Yet cutting-edge science is just backing up what the Bible stated long before computers could register brain waves. Acts 20:35 states: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” The word “blessed” here means happy.
We are happy when receiving and even happier when giving.
The final three months of the calendar centers very much on giving. It is when generosity is most on people’s minds. The holiday season, which seems to stretch longer every year, is a time of gift buying and giving, altruism and acts of kindness. Thanksgiving, Christmas and even the U.S. tax code (31 percent of all annual donations to nonprofits occurs in December) drives much of this charity.
With the giving-to-happiness equation in mind, every year should end on a blissful high note—with happiness, joy, contentment and overall life satisfaction bursting at the seams.
Sadly, this is nowhere near the case. “The most wonderful time of the year” is far from it and not just because of a handful of Ebenezer Scrooges.
Instead, the holiday blues are taking over. Happiness is decreasing during the holidays as depression and anxiety replaces it. This time of year evokes feelings of loneliness and stress, even among those with families. Divorces skyrocket during and in the wake of the holiday season. Lawyers actually plan for an increase in clientele—dubbing the first day after the new year “Divorce Day.” As one lawyer’s website put it, some couples hold out hope that the holidays will rekindle their relationships only to be greatly disappointed.
Even going beyond the holiday season, it is ironic that some of the most generous nations are not the most happy. The United States ranks second on the five-year World Giving Index and Britain ranks seventh. According to the WGI, 76 percent of Americans acknowledged helping a stranger, 62 percent donated money and 44 percent volunteered their time. For the UK, the statistics were 62 percent, 71 percent and 30 percent respectively.
Both nations rank surprisingly low on the happiness scale. The U.S. ranks 19th in the World Happiness rankings and the UK is 15th—revealing an anomaly in the connection between generosity and overall gladness.
While statistical factors between the giving index and the happiness scale are admittedly nuanced, the point stands. Our giving is not leading to happiness.
Having monetary wealth does not automatically bring happiness.
Psychology Today demonstrated this: “…it comes as a shock for many people to learn that there is no straightforward relationship between wealth and well-being. Once our basic material needs are satisfied (i.e. once we’re assured of regular food and adequate shelter and a basic degree of financial security), wealth only has a negligible effect on well-being. For example, studies have shown that, in general, lottery winners do not become significantly happier than they were before, and that even extremely rich people—such as billionaires—are not significantly happier than others. Studies have shown that American and British people are less contented now than they were 50 years ago, although their material wealth is much higher.”
Distributing some of this wealth to others is how many strive for contentment.
Philanthropy is woven into the fabric of U.S. society. According to Charity Navigator, the largest charity assessment organization in America, there are more than 1.4 million nonprofits in the U.S., and 1 million of these are tax-exempt public charities.
There is no denying that many people are genuinely interested in sacrificing for the sake of others. Consider the public reaction in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, which slammed the Bahamas and left a trail of damage along the American East Coast. Millions of Americans parted with their hard-earned personal funds to help people whose livelihoods were devastated by the tropical cyclone.
Even a month after the storm, a small Florida restaurant pulled down thousands of dollar bills customers attached to its wall for decor purposes to donate about $15,000 to the relief effort.
Corporations are also heavily involved with giving efforts. Altruism is one of the core tenets of Food Lion, for example, a company that operates more than 1,000 grocery stores in Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic states. Their ambitious goal is to end hunger for 1 in 8 neighbors and 1 in 6 food-insecure children. They have committed to donate 1 billion meals by the end of 2025. They reached their previous goal of donating 500 million meals and did so 18 months earlier than expected. This is merely one small example as many companies, public and private, have charitable foundations through which they “give back.”
But as stated before, despite our benevolent ways, we still seem unable to give our way to happiness.
Think of the most generous person you know. It could be a family member, a rich uncle perhaps. It could be a lenient employer or a neighbor willing to provide you the shirt off his back.
If you have never encountered such a person, consider the business moguls and philanthropists who have given away billions of dollars, or even the Mother Theresa-types who dedicated their lives to giving.
There is one who exceeds them all—in fact, one who may have been the inspiration for the previous examples.
God is the most generous, giving Being in existence—by far.
Recall the oft-quoted scripture that characterizes God’s inherently giving character: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
Most focus on the gift, Jesus Christ, and less on the giver, God the Father. A Father willing to give His Son as a sacrifice for all humanity’s sake demonstrates amazing generosity. The Son followed the Father’s example by being willing to give His own life.
In fact, Jesus Christ said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). He fulfilled this Himself by laying down or giving His life for His sheep (10:11).
We are instructed to follow the example Christ left us (I Pet. 2:21). This does not mean we should go out and allow others to torture and kill us. Rather, it is an instruction to be willing to lay down or sacrifice our resources—time, effort, attention and even money—for others.
It is one thing to give out of abundance. Sacrifice, by definition, is to give up something one would otherwise want to keep.
The timeless story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) illustrates several elements of the kind of sacrifice Christ described. Many point to the demonstration of kindness around the holidays as a microcosm of this story—which teaches the importance of making sacrifices to help those in need. However, as you read the summary of the account, consider whether the holiday season measures up.
Before telling the parable, Jesus was asked how to inherit eternal life. Christ went on to explain a willingness to give to others as an important criterion and demonstrated it through the parable.
He then described a Samaritan (who were considered foreigners in the land of Israel at the time) risking himself to assist a Jewish stranger he happened upon who had been robbed and nearly beaten to death. Before the Samaritan arrived, the victim was passed over by a priest and a Levite who most would expect to stop and assist him. Instead, the Samaritan took notice of the beaten man, provided medical treatment and transported him to a lodge to allow him to heal. The Samaritan instructed the caregiver to bill him for any charges incurred.
This level of hospitality sounds like a dream scenario.
In telling the story, however, Jesus showed several elements of proper giving—the kind that leads to happiness.
The Samaritan did not give out of his abundance. He used his own wine, oil and bandages to provide medical treatment. By offering to take care of expenses incurred over time, he demonstrated that the welfare of the wounded man was more important than his money. He also risked his own safety by helping the man even though the thieves could have returned. He gave his time to personally clean and bandage the man’s wounds on the scene and then transported him to safety. He also overcame ethnic differences to come to the Jewish man’s aid.
With these details in mind, the Good Samaritan is a stellar example for all. Though it is difficult to achieve, it represents the mindset of selfless giving that brings real happiness.
People give for many reasons. Most who give often wonder why they are not as blessed or happy as they could be.
This is because some give for the wrong reasons. They do so to get in return and are usually disappointed when they do not receive anything. Even if there is a return on investment, disappointment can come from not receiving it soon enough or the return is deemed insignificant in comparison to the gift. Others give out of a sense of responsibility or out of habit, not fully understanding or appreciating why they should give willingly.
Look at God’s example. He gives willingly and does not expect anything in return.
Well, perhaps that is not quite accurate. What God does want to see in return is the happiness and joy that comes from His providence. As a divine Parent, He wants His children to enjoy the gifts He gives.
Giving with true altruism—the kind that God exhibits—is rare. As a supreme giver, God exhibits what can be called the give way of life. This is polar opposite to the get way of life that is prevalent today. A person cannot achieve true happiness with a get mindset, regardless of occasional gifts or things they do for others. It is the giving mindset—a life of giving—that leads to happiness.
Where do you stand? Are you more of a giver or more of a getter?
Here is a litmus test. When reading the following verses, do you find yourself fully agreeing with them or do you feel some guilt?
“He which sows sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which sows bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Every man according as he purposes in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work” (II Cor. 9:6-8).
Do you give cheerfully or grudgingly? God says He loves the first category.
Here are two more verses from the book of Proverbs that describe a cheerful and abundant giver: “He that has a bountiful eye shall be blessed; for he gives of his bread to the poor” (22:9). Also, the slothful “covets greedily all the day long: but the righteous gives and spares not” (21:26). Do you read these and see areas in which to grow?
How do you compare to one of the clearest statements Christ made about giving: “Give to every man that asks of you…as you would [wish] that men should do to you, do you also to them likewise…do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great…” (Luke 6:30-31, 35). This clearly describes an attitude of giving. For those who adhere to this, giving is a way of life.
Verse 38 adds more about what happens when we give in this way: “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that you mete withal it shall be measured to you again.”
In this case, the giver does get something in return.
King Solomon added to the promise attached to being a cheerful giver: “Cast your bread upon the waters [give to others]: for you shall find it after many days” (Prov. 11:1). He also stated: “There is that scatters [gives], and yet increases; and there is that withholds more than is meet [gets for himself], but it tends to poverty. The liberal [generous] soul shall be made fat: and he that waters shall be watered also himself” (vs. 24-25).
God ultimately set the example of how to give and told us how to match His generosity: “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8). He later showed that one of the things mankind received freely is the life of Jesus Christ: “He that finds [the Greek can also mean “gets”] his life shall lose it: and he that loses his life [gives it up] for My sake shall find it” (vs. 39).
Christ gave His actual life for mankind. We should follow in His steps and, like the Good Samaritan, give up elements of our lives in the service of others. If we do so, we will find true happiness.
Living the give way is not intuitive or automatic. It must be learned, hence Christ’s multiple instructions. If you are not the giver you want to be, do not beat yourself up. It takes practice and consistently experiencing the results to grow in this area. Knowing that the rewards are plenty, including lasting happiness, helps.
Christ’s example reveals this reward. After performing the duties of a house servant, in this case washing His disciples’ feet, He described the feeling they would experience doing it for others: “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you…If you know these things, happy are you if you do them” (John 13:14-15, 17).
Most people may not think that washing someone’s feet will bring happiness. But Christ’s point is a willingness to meet the needs of others—even if inconvenient—makes you happy because it makes them happy. This is the core of the principle that it is better to give than to receive. Serving others provides happiness and allows us to experience it ourselves.
Learn to live the give way of life and avoid the get way. Joy wrought from getting is temporary. Happiness from giving is lasting.
Ultimately, the gift of giving is to receive abundant gifts from God, which pleases all involved.