Three Tips from The Dragonfly Effect

1. Spend money in a way that increases happiness.

Money does correlate with happiness, surprisingly.  But not in ways that people predict. In a study conducted by Liz Dunn, Dana Aknin, and Mike Norton, researchers gave two groups of people either $20 or $5, and told them to spend it on themselves or others by 5pm that day.  When reached that evening, those who spent the money on themselves bought things like coffee and food, while those who gave money to others reported spending it on things like gifts for their siblings or donations to the homeless.  The researchers found that regardless of the amount, the group that spent their money on others reported significantly higher levels of happiness than the group that spent the money on themselves.  There was no difference in happiness between those who spent $5 or $20, suggesting that it is not how much money you spend, but how you spend it, that boosts the spirits.

Here is the worrisome part, though. In a follow up study, the researchers gave two groups of people the same four conditions — asking them what they believe would make them happier.  The results showed that people predicted that $20 would make them happier than $5, and that spending it on themselves would make them happier than spending it on others.

People overestimate the buzz they get from doing something nice for themselves — and underestimate the benefit they get by doing good for others. Evolutionarily wired to be pro-social, we actually relish giving.  But the decisions we often make are not consistent with what actually makes us happy.  Money may be one key to happiness, but our instincts are often misaligned about how to actually spend it.  Spend on others or for others.

Convinced?  Here are some things to try for yourself:  Visit CharityWater.org and lead a campaign among your friends to raise money to drill drinking water wells in Africa. 100% of the money your raise will go toward that purpose and just $20 can provide clean water to someone for 20 years.  You could also give a Kiva.org microloan gift certificate to support entrepreneurs from third world countries; or you might purchase a pair of TOMS Shoes, and they will match your shoe purchase with a donation of pair of shoes for someone in need.


2. Consider how you are spending your time.

Our misguided spending decisions fail us, but money itself might also be part of the problem. A growing number of studies show that simply thinking about money fosters behaviors that are misaligned with happiness. Studies have shown that the mere mention of money leads individuals to be less likely to help others, donate to charity, or socialize with friends and family — behaviors that are tied to personal happiness.  Although correcting how we spend our money is likely to lead us closer to the holy grail of happiness, we might get even further with a consideration of our other resource -– time.

So if you want to make a change this holiday season, consider not just who you are spending time with -– but also what activities you do with your time.  One simple way to guide your decision about how to spend your time  is to ask yourself the question, “Is what I’m doing right now going to be of lasting value to me or to others?” This simple question nudges you to behave in ways that more clearly map onto what will really make you happy.  As one example, considering visiting Bethematch.org to request a cheek swab.  They will send you a small kit, you swab your cheek, send it back in and you will be added to the National Bone Marrow Registry, which increases the chance that you might be able to save the life of another individual.  With new technology, bone marrow transfers are non-invasive and painless and similar to simply giving blood – an afternoon of one’s time and the opportunity to give hope to another.  The ability to make a big change is often no more than a few keystrokes away -– all you have to do is take the time to make the click.


3. Share your story.

The power of social media lies in the power to share your message–and inspire infectious action as a result.  Consider the story of Carolee Hazard, who started her organization The 93 Dollar Club after a chance encounter at the grocery store.  Carolee noticed that the woman checking out ahead of her had lost her wallet, and Carolee offered to pay her $207 grocery bill.  The next day, she received a check from the woman she had helped, but for $300 — $93 more than the grocery bill.  Uncertain about what to do with the money, she published the story on Facebook.  A friend then suggested she donate it to charity, and Carolee gave the money to her local Food Bank, updating her Facebook status with the news.  Within a day, inspired by Carolee’s generosity, over a dozen of her Facebook friends had joined in to help.  And as they spread the message, donations of $93 flooded in, and the project quickly grew.  As a result of Carolee’s single, simple act of kindness shared across the web, The 93 Dollar Club has since raised over $100,000, providing over 220,000 meals at the food bank – ranging in donations from just 93 cents all the way up to $9,300.

One small act -– whether it be online or off — can have a ripple effect and lead to significant change.  For visuals and stories of random acts of kindness visit How Good Grows.  You can also share your story on Yahoo, VolunteerMatch or Dragonflyeffect.com.  Those stories will grow and infect others.

In the lead-up to the holidays we often find ourselves caught up in buying gifts and finding the best sales; but consider going into this holiday season with an eye towards systematically giving back. As Khalil Gibran said, “You give but little when you give of your possessions.  It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”  Enact The Dragonfly Effect this season and be empowered not by your purchases, but by the value you give back to the people and causes that matter most.

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