COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — With an increasing number of advocacy groups and humanitarian causes, many people find it difficult to choose who and what they should support and in some cases, why they should decide to give at all.
Recent scientific research has demonstrated that there is a difference between living a “happy” life and living a “meaningful” life. Generally, people tend to find charitable work and supporting causes that are important to them to be fulfilling.
Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, and his colleagues surveyed nearly 400 people in order to research the relationship between happiness and meaning. Last year, Baumeister published a paper, co-written by researchers at both the University of Minnesota and Stanford, in the Journal of Positive Psychology about this research and the effects of giving.
Baumeister discovered that, “A happy life and a meaningful life have some differences.” The research he and his team conducted found five major differences between the two:
1. People who live happy lives focus more on satisfying their wants and needs, such as one’s health or financial condition, while those with meaningful lives find needs and wants to be trivial.
2. Being happy “involves being focused on the present, whereas meaningfulness involves thinking more about the past, present and future” and how all these interact with each other. In this way, meaningfulness tends to last longer because it incorporates more than one period of time.
3. Something considered to be meaningful was determined to come from giving, whereas happiness was determined to come from taking. Happiness often comes from the benefits that a person receives, whether from an activity or a relationship. Meaningfulness more often comes from what one gives to someone else.
4. People who described their lives as “meaningful” had higher levels of stress and anxiety, but also had lower levels of happiness, suggesting that challenging and difficult activities may add meaning to a person’s life.
5. Self-expression was more associated with meaning than with happiness.
Baumeister has said in regards to the idea that giving may be more important to meaning than happiness that it depends on what the specific type of giving is. He said, “If we just look at helping others, the simple effect is that people who help others are happier,” but he made things more complex by saying, “then helping makes people less happy, so that all the effect of helping on happiness comes by way of increasing meaningfulness.”
A different survey, conducted by the charity Action for Happiness, asked 5,000 people to rate how often they performed habits that “science has shown can make people happier.” In this case, the study found that giving, defined as to “do things for others,” had the highest rating.
A great deal of additional psychological research reveals that giving to charity can produce more positive emotional effects, while not giving can lead to more negative emotions.
What is emphasized in all of this research is that giving does add something to a person’s life. The first step is to decide to give.
As Oprah Winfrey has said, “I don’t think you ever stop giving…I think it’s an ongoing process. And it’s not just about being able to write a check. It’s being able to touch somebody’s life.”