Montreal, December 15, 2008 • No 262




Gilles Guénette holds a degree in Communications at Université du Québec à Montréal and is Québécois Libre' s editor.




by Gilles Guénette


          In an article entitled "Why Giving Makes You Happy" published late last year in The New York Sun, Arthur Brooks informed us that Americans gave nearly $300 billion to charitable organizations in 2007. One of the explanations for this generosity—in addition to the fact that charitable donations are tax deductible, as they are in Canada—is the simple fact that giving makes you happy.


          Indeed, according to the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, a huge study of 30,000 American households, those who gave money to a charitable organization in the year 2000 were 43% more likely to say they were "very happy" with their lives than were those who had not given. Likewise, those who did volunteer work were 42% more likely to consider themselves very happy than those who did none.

          According to the survey, whether donations of money or time were made to symphony orchestras, hospitals, or churches made no difference. Whatever the cause, those who gave were happier by far than those who did not.

          Those who give are also less inclined to feel sad or depressed than those who did not give. According to the University of Michigan's Panel Study of Income Dynamics, those who gave money in 2001 were 34% less likely than those who did not give to say that in the previous month, they had felt "so sad that nothing could cheer them up." They were also 68% less likely to have felt "hopeless."

          For Mr. Brooks, a Syracuse University Professor and the author of Who Really Cares—America's Charity Divide: Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why It Matters (Basic Books, 2006), the gap between the levels of happiness of those who give and those who do not is not simply explained by personal characteristics like income or religious belief. By way of example, he introduces us to two people identical in every particular: income, faith, age, education, politics, gender, etc. One of them gives money and time (through volunteer work), while the other does not give either. As a result of giving, the first person will be, on average, 11 percentage points more likely to be very happy than the second.

A Question of Genes

          Of course, it's not just giving gifts of money or time that makes one happy. Giving blood, giving a few cigarettes to a homeless person, or giving directions to a stranger on the street are all "donations" that are associated with higher levels of satisfaction.

          Researchers have been looking into the possible causes that might link charity and happiness. According to their experiments, giving has a direct affect on brain chemistry. For example, those who give often report sensations approaching euphoria—what psychologists call the "Helper's High." Researchers believe that charity work promotes the secretion of endorphins, producing a milder version of the same sensation experienced by drug users when they inject morphine or heroin.

          Giving also lowers the levels of stress hormones that cause sadness and distress. In an experiment at Duke University in 1998, adults were asked to massage babies—ostensibly an act of pure compassion since it involves no hope of reward, not even a simple "thank you." After having performed the massages, the adults had markedly lower levels of stress hormones, of adrenaline, and of norepinephrine in their brains.

          As far as Brooks is concerned, the research speaks for itself: giving is not just good for your favourite cause; it is also good for you. For easing tension and depression, giving is probably better than anything your doctor could prescribe.

The State Makes Us Miserable

          If giving makes us happy, why then do we not give more? One reason that jumps out when it comes to volunteer work is a lack of time. Since we are always scrambling to get everything done that needs to get done, giving time is not that easy. It is difficult to give time because we don't seem to have enough of it, but also because most of the sectors where volunteering would be welcome are monopolized by government.

"If the State left more of our own money in our pockets, we might be able to give more to our favourite causes."

          Just try donating your time at your local school board, government daycare, community centre, or long-term care centre. The unionized bureaucrats who work there will surely give you dirty looks. And even if we could volunteer, the impression that we all have is that government is taking care of everything, and that its employees are much more qualified than we are to help those in need. Therefore, we do little volunteer work.

          It's also hard to give money when the taxman leaves us with so little. If the State left more of our own money in our pockets, we might be able to give more to our favourite causes. But once we receive our paycheques and see how much we have "contributed" to the government's coffers (not to mention union "contributions" in many cases), it is enough to quell all passion for donation.

          Moreover, since the government is in charge of financing the local schools, daycares, and hospitals—in addition to whole sections of the cultural scene, retirement homes, community aid centres of all kinds, and just about everything else that moves in the Province of Quebec!—and that it has, in practice, supplanted the role of the church in our lives, the impulse to give does not come as naturally as it might. Therefore, we give little.

          It is surely not a coincidence that year after year, Quebecers are among the North Americans who give the least to charity. There is necessarily a link to be made between the fact that we are among the most taxed populations in North America, the fact that the State occupies a very large place in our lives, and the fact that we are among the least generous—although some, like Martin Boyer, professor of finance at HEC Montreal, have a slightly different take.

Parting with Our Paycheques

          You may be wondering, "How come I don't feel that 'Helper's High' when I give my money to the State?" The reason is that we don't give our money to the taxman; he takes it from us. And aside from a few committed statists who believe that government does a good job of redistributing our money, we get no pleasure from parting with fully half of our paycheques.

          The State, in addition to making us miserable by confiscating more and more of the fruit of our labour, makes us miserable through its numerous interventions that deprive us of the chance to give. We would all be happier if government was less present in every sector of social life, first of all because we would have more money in our pockets, and second of all because we could feel much more like we were having an impact by redistributing our money ourselves.

          I would give more to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. You might give more to Oxfam-Quebec. Your mother-in-law might give to the Sainte-Justine Hospital Foundation, and her husband to the Alzheimer Society of Canada. The idea is that in order for donating to contribute to your happiness, it must be voluntary, not coerced.

          Under the current system, the government takes our money and redistributes it to organizations it judges fit to receive it, but that might receive less (or none at all) if they had to seek financing from the private sector. Knowing that businesses like Bombardier and Pratt & Whitney receive money from me, or that organizations like the Front d'action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU, a group promoting social housing) or the Action terroriste socialement acceptable (ATSA, a group promoting art with a political left-wing message) live off of my resources, makes my skin crawl and decreases my level of happiness. Others would disagree, and could give them their money freely.

          If we had the choice of giving to whomever we wanted, and we had more substantial means to do so effectively, we would all be a whole lot happier.


* This article was first published in French in QL no 247 – January 6, 2008. It was translated by Bradley Doucet.