The Paradox of the Giver

The Paradox of the Giver

June 18, 2020

As we pulled into the parking lot of the FISH Food Bank off of Burnham Drive, AJ and I noticed a few people picking up food. One was an elderly man by himself; the other was a younger woman with a little girl. You could read their faces much like the first page of a worn, secondhand book. Their faces hinted at difficult live

Circling around the back, we unloaded AJ’s Jeep. This week at the office we ran a food drive and raffled off a few gift cards to local businesses. Two grateful volunteers ushered bags of food and soap into the building. Later AJ said “I think this is a great way for us to help in our community where there’s clearly a need.”

We all felt great about the experience, and we noticed clients did as well. Some walked into the office wearing masks, but you could still see the little crinkles near their eyes that gave away their smiles alongside their food donations.

Two years ago, I gave a presentation about charitable giving for my Rotary club. During my research for the talk, I stumbled across a series of findings from the Science Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame. They found causal relationships between giving (both time and money) and health. Americans who self-described as “very happy” averaged 5.8 volunteer hours per month. Those who were “unhappy” averaged .6 hours.

Economic theory tells us we maximize our utility (happiness) by maximizing our acquisition of goods. Yet as those food bank volunteers wheeled the last of the cereal and pasta away, I felt more fulfilled and “wealthy” after giving. Rather than “money buys happiness,” perhaps it should be “giving buys wealth”. Ebenezer Scrooge might agree with me.

Our perceptions of our own wealth tend to matter more than the raw numbers alone. Having enough to be comfortable is important, but as advisors we see people who struggle to spend money, even though they have plenty.

They do not feel wealthy. The logical part of them agrees they can afford to worry less and spend more, but the emotional part of them is still caught in survival-and-savings mode. That mode detracts from the enjoyment of our hard-earned savings, even if it serves us well initially.

Something we find helpful for those with that “fortunate problem”—consider finding a worthy cause to donate one’s time and resources. It acts as a form of permission (“They need my help; I can afford to lend a hand here. It goes to a good cause.”). In giving, you tend to find much more than you lose: community, a sense of purpose, and the feeling that you are in a position to give to others with less.


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