If we are natural givers, why don't we give enough?

There is no one way to happiness. Anyone who says that has clearly not gotten to the core of being human. Happiness is a complicated thing, but there is no doubt that we all want it, even if we know it is a mercurial thing – slippery and mysterious in its origins and persistence.  

Recently, researchers found out that exercise can make you happy – even better than money can. They asked people about the frequency of their exercise and their income and found that those who exercised more reported more days when they were happy than those who did not exercise but earned significantly more income. 

The study wanted to lay out more clearly and more palpably the mental benefits of exercise, given that the physical benefits are already well-established. There were 75 physical activities that counted as exercise in the study, and the more "social" kinds of exercise seemed to make for more happy days. 

But can money really buy happiness? It can. Science says money can really make you happy, but only up to a point. Beyond $75,000, there is no proportional increase in personal happiness. But if you study millionaires, the two-digit millionaires were happier than the single digit millionaires, but not so much. The more significant difference was that those who made their own wealth themselves were happier versus those who inherited it. 

Even more amazing is that beyond money, what makes the already wealthy happier is if they give their money away. In this TED interview, Bill and Melissa Gates said that giving away their money is the most satisfying thing they have ever done. Apparently billionaire Warren Buffett also feels that way.

But giving as a source of happiness is not limited to those who are billionaires. Humans have evolved to get a kick out of giving to someone. We feel good and inspired when we do it. Selfishness is natural, but so is generosity. We know this from experience and from listening to stories of giving from other people. But if so, why is it that the most urgent and important causes in our community, country, and planet seem to not benefit enough from this basic feature of our humanity – the giver in all of us? If we are natural givers, why don't we give enough? 

Elizabeth Dunn is a scientist who has devoted her entire career investigating how spending for other people makes us happy. In her very engaging TED Talk, she shared that the sweet spot for happiness in giving is not the giving itself but how you give. 

To summarize one of her most important studies, she said that if we feel that we can relate to the person we are helping, then that makes us happy – whether it is a mother needing urgent medical help for her child, or a child wanting some means to go to school. We have to be able to relate to that. This means that it would depend on you what are the issues that you can deeply relate to enough to care. 

She said the other thing that has to be satisfied by the way we give is competency. This means that the giver has to be directly aware of the impact of what she or he is giving. Dunn said this is probably why abstract causes like the "life of children in a country" does not attract as much giving from individuals as "a mosquito net for every family in X community." 

Lastly, she found that in order for giving to bring happiness, the giver should be free to decide whether to help or not. If the giving is not done out of obligation, there is so much pleasure and happiness that springs from the act.

Her study also found that those who keep money for themselves instead of giving to others have more of the stress hormone cortisol in their system. The brains of those who give to others, meanwhile, feel "rewarded." 

Giving is not only putting yourself out to make someone happy. It is also going deeply into yourself to realize that giving is an awesome source of your own happiness. Indeed, it is in giving that we receive. – Rappler.com

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.