What we get when we give

Charity is not just a way to help others. It is an outward indication of healthy, happy individuals and communities.

Rupak de Chowdhuri/Reuters
A nun interacts with children at Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, a children's home founded by Mother Teresa in Kolkata, India.

Giving transcends cultures and continents. What we call charity is “tzedakah” in Judaism, “zakat” in Islam, and “dana” in the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain traditions. While giving has deep roots in religion, it isn’t confined to believers. People in Sweden, Norway, and other relatively secular societies give the most per capita in the world. Giving is growing in China, growing worldwide, even growing in Africa (click here), which has been the focus of so much needed assistance for so long.

Although giving can be a way to assuage guilt, build influence, or win converts, it more often is pure altruism, a flood of compassion for those in need, a left hand unaware of the check the right hand is writing. Whatever the motive, the quality of charity, like mercy, is twice blessed, helping both giver and taker.

The benefit to the taker is clear: hunger banished, warmth restored, communities enriched. The benefit to the giver is more nuanced. Sure, one might get a smile, a thank-you, and a tax deduction, but giving can’t be measured by return on investment. People just do it.

About 70 percent of American households give to charities. While major philanthropies and high-income individuals donate generously, the working poor and working lower middle class actually donate a greater percentage of their incomes, and in most cases they don’t itemize their taxes. Social scientist Arthur Brooks, who heads the American Enterprise Institute and has done extensive analysis of giving, maintains that charity correlates with happiness. People who give tend to have healthy habits, harmonious families, and good relations with neighbors and co-workers, and “the end result is that charitable giving is one of the things that measures the likelihood of people being successful,” he says (for more detail, click here).

So it isn’t that the world is made happier by giving, though the lives of the needy and the quality of communities are definitely improved by it. The real story is that the happier the world is – not smilingly, indulgently happy but soberly, productively happy – the more giving there is. The global growth of giving signals something that might seem counterintuitive if you have been caught up in news about political division and planetary uncertainty: Gross national happiness is rising.

Charities receive a surge of donations during the holiday season. That’s good. But it’s even better when giving is part of every season. It’s evidence of fewer people in need, more people at work; fewer fractured families, more loving ones; fewer tinkling cymbals, more thriving orchestras. No matter what your politics, religion, or social status, when you give you are proving that the world is a happy place. That’s the world to acknowledge at Thanksgiving.

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