Buying Happiness


(Artwork by Najin Jun)

I recently viewed some posts on my Facebook newsfeed that made me think – one status was by a friend announcing that they had just bought a new house, underneath this was another friend publicizing a charitable donation they had just made, and upon scrolling further down the page was a photo uploaded by someone else showing off their shiny new car. On brief introspection of these posts, I came to the disappointing realisation that whilst I found myself somewhere in the middle of being neutral to mildly happy for those individuals who had bought the house and car, I cringed at the post about giving money away:

“Starting the day by donating to MSF. Who are you supporting this year?”

I believe a post such as this one would induce some aversive reaction from most people, and this needs to change. If we can ever hope to continue to progress towards a more just and generous society, we need to be more vocal about our charitable donations.

It seems that, when faced with statements such as the one above, many people do not meet them with feelings of admiration, rather pose questions surrounding self-centredness, narcissism, and attention-seeking. After all, isn’t charity, at its core, altruistic? If charity is to give to another without expecting something in return, then bragging about what you give seems to go against this very principle. If we do have expectations of receiving something in return, is this any different to merely buying something?

Whilst recently talking to a well respected psychiatrist and neuroscientist, our conversation on the topic of charity quickly veered to that of a large research institute situated in my home city of Brisbane. Previously known as the QIMR (Queensland Institute of Medical Research), it received an extremely large donation of 50.1 million dollars from a property developer of a nearby town, and subsequently its title was altered to henceforth include his name – the QIMR Clive Berghofer Centre. The neuroscientist I was discussing this with was annoyed for two reasons:

1. The donation was precisely 50.1 million, seemingly to outshine the previous largest Australian philanthropic donation of 50 million dollars.
2. It was rumoured that a stipulation of the donation was Berghofer’s name be added to the title of the institute (I cannot confirm nor deny this second point, but it serves its purpose for the article regardless).

I believe this societal condemnation – this frowning upon vocal and visible charitable donations – is wrong. It stifles inspiration, hinders progress of social norms, and above all robs the all-important rewarding aspect of charity. It seems that parading a photo of a shiny new expensive car is currently more socially acceptable than letting acts of donating be known. The notion that charity needs to be ‘pure’ in order to be truly worthwhile is unnecessary, untrue, and actually detrimental.

Altruistic acts are, at their core, selfish, including charity – even the largest, private and anonymous donation one could make. It gives a person feelings of fulfilment, earns the “thumbs up” from a celestial dictator (i.e. God), amasses good karma in the personal bank; whatever the reason behind them, one of the core goals is to feel happy and rewarded. Indeed, there can never be any act that is truly altruistic.

It is in this sense that yes, giving to charity may not be so different to buying a pair of new shoes. The only thing that separates the two are secondary effects. This may seem outrageous at first, but helping fund the clothing and feeding of a child in Nigeria is in actuality only a secondary effect to feeling the personal fulfilment that comes through donating. That being said, while we all want to buy our happiness with excess money, some people fortunately find happiness in giving money to others. And regardless of this, it still fundamentally remains to be a kind, generous, and meaningful act.

Many people also tend to spend their excess money to increase their perceived self-worth, to lift their status, and to build their egos. People spend an inordinate amount of money on material possessions as a direct result of their perceived worth in these domains. We succumb to this urge whether it be buying a slightly more expensive bottle of wine at dinner with friends, or splashing out in gaining possession of a supersized yacht. A person such as Clive Berghofer, you could argue, was probably also driven by the idea of elevating his status when donating fifty million dollars to scientific research.

Should we ever care about the ulterior motives of a charitable act? Of course, sometimes we should. If a charitable act is a disguised form of solicitation, we should definitely care. One example is the Catholic Church missionaries who provided aid to Africa. Along with this aid they passed on many abhorrent religious teachings including, as Christopher Hitchens so wonderfully summed it up, “Aids is bad, but not as bad as condoms!” But in the case of benign ulterior motives being self-fulfilment, self-worth, happiness and status, I cannot see the alarm. What matters are results in the real world; whether someone has shelter, food, clean water, education, or freedom from persecution.

The first positive step we can take is to allow charitable acts to be more rewarding. The more gratifying it is to do such things, the more people will become engaged. We are social creatures; we strive to be respected, noticed and liked. If we include such payouts from charitable acts, we raise the perceived worth of them (of course, not everybody needs this, but it will no doubt ultimately increase participation). The second step we should take is to introduce charity into more of our daily discourse.

Let us now revisit the case of Clive Berghofer, the man who donated fifty million dollars to scientific research. This money has obviously bought him something, yet to expect someone to give so much without expecting anything in return – no respect, fulfilment or happiness – is a strange expectation. I would much prefer Mr Berghofer to buy happiness via his name on the side of a medical research building than to spend the same amount of money on a super-sized yacht.

Similarly, large companies commonly donate money to visible charities, and via very public means such as televised natural disaster charity appeals. However, thoughts such as “but they’re only doing that for the publicity” boil down to be merely fallacious. To solely hold this point of view is akin to wishing that they had instead spent the money on mindless television adverts.

Donating money is great, still how much greater of an impact would your donation realise if you vocalised these (however big or small) and inspired others to do the same? Let us realise that we are beings constrained to our own consciousness, and that the actions we foresee as achieving an improved state of our own consciousness are the ones that we tend to strive for the most. Additionally, we are social animals and, under guidance of this fact, increase the perceived social worth and attractiveness of charitable contributions to simultaneously compel others to think about how they may also be able to help.

So let us praise the Bill Gates of the world and admire their actions as being more noble than they would be silent and covert. Let us destroy the taboo attached to talking about our donations.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Will Yam says:

    Great article Steven, have not read this type of engaging psychosocial analysis in a while.

    I think the act of tooting your own charitable horn causes social aversion for two main reasons: It provokes feelings of jealousy (they have more money/free time than me) and guilt (I feel bad for not doing enough); and Evangelism rarely goes down well (you want me to buy stuff/join something by wasting my time).

    I want to explore a different aspect (more business-related) of your viewpoint (which I agree with):

    I think traditional charities are not designed to be marketed effectively – most generate revenue through sympathy (those confrontational images and statistics), an issue which strikes a chord, and abusing social etiquette (if you’re cornered by the notepad and smiles, and have trouble saying no, you may opt to donate to avoid awkwardness). None of these factors reliably generate self-perpetuating marketing (i.e. things going viral, the most effective marketing strategy in the social-media age of supercharged connectivity). In fact, by rewarding donators with nothing other than a feeling of selfless generosity, charities actually discourage “boasting”, and those who do are condemned in a socially-condoned manner (as you explored).

    Fortunately, there has already charitable endeavours which have developed a sustainable business model (if you need to generate income at all, you are a business – regardless of who you decide to pay) – by offering value which people are willing to pay for or otherwise support, which takes away the taboo of sharing, and potentially leads to virality. Crowd-funding websites are current prime examples.

    If charities operate more like businesses, they’d become more financially sound, and be able to serve their goals more effectively.

  2. cloud-ius says:

    fully agreed steve.
    even though im not fond of obama i find one statement of his very fitting.

    We live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principle goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained

    btw i donate to amnesty int., campact: a pro-direct-democracy org. and a local animal shelter fund . now praise me or i shall post pics of my car XD

  3. Greg says:

    Great article Steve. I have a bit of a different perspective on charitable giving. I think it can’t be fully explained by just that “reward” impulse. In a benefit/cost ratio is it worth the cost of your money or time for that impulse? I think its more than just the dopamine, I think it becomes integrated into your schema as you as a good person. Therefore that alters your perception of yourself and feeds more into your projected story as a “moral individual”.

    By broadcasting our donation and feting our charitable individuals (aka the US) that may promote this behaviour as the individual will be receiving positive societal feed back.

    Just to play devils advocate for a second should we contribute more in Australia? According to stats we are the third in the world for contributions, and with our safety net is it necessary for us to do so?

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