In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I decided to write a book about charitable giving. As I’ve watched people everywhere respond to the global call to help others, two things have become glaringly clear to me. First, that it is vital for communities around the world to continue to give with passion even after the pandemic ends. Second, that the perception of charitable giving as an activity reserved for the wealthy has to change. What has resulted is a handbook for anyone—from people who may be struggling financially themselves, to the ultra wealthy—titled Giving: How to Become a 21st Century Philanthropist.
I wanted to share just a small excerpt of it to provide some inspiration. I hope this peek into Giving sparks your passion and encourages you to make the act of giving a part of your life mission.
The Simple Joy of Giving
This act of giving can be uniquely rewarding because acts of philanthropy often provide an immediate feedback loop that allows you to see exactly how your action creates change. And yet this action isn’t entirely selfless. While it’s true that giving, by its nature, requires us to give something up (money, time, resources), it is often emotionally rewarding for the giver. Knowing that you are doing something to make the world even a little bit better doesn’t just seem to feel good—it actually creates a positive biological response.
Back when I studied psychology in college, I was fascinated by the mechanics of the human brain. I loved exploring how our choices can change our physiology, and how our physiology can change how we think and how we feel. I learned that though we tend to view our brains and our actions as separate, that’s not the reality at all. This is true in many areas of our lives—including in the act of giving.
In October 2020, many months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the New York Times ran a story about the ‘happiness class’ at Yale University, taught by psychology professor Laurie Santos. Titled ‘The Science of Well-Being,’ the class had just claimed the spot as the #1 most popular course at Yale. When Yale offered it for free online, millions of people around the world jumped at the opportunity to hear what Professor Santos had to teach about what drives happiness from a scientific standpoint, and what changes we can make in our lives to effectively rewire our brains to be happier. When asked to sum up her teachings, Santos said this:
“We assume that self-care looks like a nice bubble bath—or even hedonistic pursuits, selfish pursuits. But the data suggests that the right way to treat ourselves would be to do nice things for other people. We actually get more out of being more open and more social and more other-oriented than spending money on ourselves. It’s a bigger increase to your happiness.”
Santos found a way to package the information in an appealing way, and Yale gave her the perfect platform to share the news, but the idea and the research that supports it is not new. Over and over again, science confirms that the simple act of giving can help improve your mood, increase your sense of purpose, reduce your stress levels, improve your health, heighten your sense of connection to others, and simply make you happier.
In the US, we’re fortunate to live in a society that offers financial incentives for giving as well. While the federal tax code is constantly changing, it continues to support deductions against income, capital gains, and estate taxes for charitable contributions. Even during the pandemic, tax incentives were included in two major economic relief bills, providing additional ‘above-the-line’ tax deductions for charitable gifts. Tax benefits like these have long served as important motivations to encourage giving.
But they can also create a certain level of angst for some givers. It’s not uncommon for charitably minded people to question whether it’s right to receive a monetary benefit for donating money to a cause. While I’m sure philosophers could debate the issue ad nauseam (and are likely discussing it at this very moment), the up-side of a tax incentive is that it quite literally puts more money back into the pockets of those who give—which enables them to give even more. If the whole idea of tax incentives doesn’t sit quite right with you, rethinking their purpose can help; rather than looking at tax incentives as a quid pro quo, try thinking of them as a way to do something even more important: to enrich your power to give.
Giving clearly offers unexpected rewards, but the greatest reward of all is the knowledge that you are taking action to make the world a better place. By giving your time, money, or resources to support something aligned with your personal values, you are taking action to create change.
Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Giving: How to Become a 21st Century Philanthropist by Gideon Bernstein.