Food for Thought: Giving beyond ourselves

Money can buy happiness ... as long as you spend the money on someone else

Yme Woensdregt

Can money buy happiness? Most of us would say a resounding “No!” Michael Norton from the Harvard Business School has researched whether money can buy happiness or not with some clever and creative experiments. He has come up with some surprising results, which he presents in a delightful talk on

His research shows that money can buy happiness … as long as you spend the money on someone else. It doesn’t matter so much how you spend the money. The most important thing is to spend it on someone else.

So let me invite you to be happier this Christmas.

Let me suggest “alternative giving”. Instead of giving someone a physical gift, make a donation to a charity in that person’s name. This idea has become more and more popular over the years.

There are many reasons why someone would appreciate receiving an alternative gift. For some, it’s a way to protest the increasing commercialization of life. They are making a statement against our consumerist culture. They already have enough “stuff” and don’t want any more stuff; alternative giving allows the giver to still recognize the occasion, whether it be Christmas, a birthday or an anniversary. Perhaps there is a cause or an organization dear to the receiver’s heart; that person might truly appreciate the giver’s thoughtfulness in supporting that effort. When someone makes an alternative gift, it’s really a double gift: a gift to the person being honoured and a gift to the charity and the people that really need the help.

For the last six years, the Sunday School children at Christ Church have chosen an alternative giving project. This year, our project will help children in Haiti. A gift of $25 will provide a hot lunch for a child for half a year. This project helps in two ways. First of all, it provides a nourishing meal for children in a country ravaged by poverty and natural disasters. Secondly, it allows children to stay in school, rather than being forced to work to support their family. This hot lunch makes all the difference for families which are struggling to provide shelter and food for their families. We’re calling it “Food for Thought”.

A very important part of this project is that every cent donated will go directly to help the children. There are no administration costs for this project.

A few years ago, I came across a book called “Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays”. Joel Waldfogel, a professor of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, reminds us that we all get presents that we don’t enjoy or which we’ll never use. “Let’s stop to consider the gifts we receive — the rooster sweater from Grandma or the singing fish from Uncle Mike.” How many of us get gifts we like? How many of us give gifts, not knowing what the recipients want?

Waldfogel estimates that in the USA, such extravagant spending generates vast amounts of economic waste … some $85 billion. Billion. With a B.

“It’s time,” he says, “to stop the madness and think twice before buying gifts for the holidays.” When we buy for ourselves, we buy what we want. Every dollar we spend produces at least a dollar in satisfaction. We shop carefully, purchasing items that are worth at least as much as they cost in terms of satisfaction.

Gift giving is different. We make poorer choices, often because we’re buying a present for someone we don’t know very well. We max out on credit cards to buy gifts worth less than the money spent, and leave recipients less than satisfied. This orgy of spending becomes less and less satisfying the more we do it.

Waldfogel acknowledges that no one has taken him up on his ideas. It will be very hard, if not impossible, to change our consumerist habits. Many of us vow every year to be more sensible, and every year we are seduced into spending more money. It’s hard to resist, because advertisers appeal to our wants rather than our needs. A need is something physical. But our wants have an emotional tie. Fulfilling a want promises to make our lives better — even though the promises prove to be empty.

This alternative giving project allows us to give gifts, and at the same time to help a family in one of the poorest nations on earth. We can give a gift and do good at the same time. At the same time, we don’t get loaded down with more stuff that we don’t need.

Buy some happiness this year. Spend your money on someone else who needs our help. It really is “Food for Thought”.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook

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