Gratitude and giving: Dual benefits of philanthropy in every day life

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“What does your research say about gratitude?” I texted my sister one day. (My sister has a PhD in psychology. I do not! Therefore I need her advice frequently!) “I’m testing a few of my social impact theories with the kids,” I explained. My daughters are frequently the subjects of my experiments to understand today's social impact culture mindset and how real-life emotions play into charitable giving for people of all ages.

“Ah, yes,” my sister texted back. “Definitely gratitude is a rising star in psychology circles.” My sister checked the research files. “In a series of studies at the University of California, people categorized as ‘grateful’ reported feeling 25 percent more happiness and energy—and 20 percent less envy and resentment—than ungrateful people.”

Bingo. I hit the call button. My sister answered her phone.

“Why do you want to know about gratitude when your research is about doing good?” my sister asked, sounding intrigued. “Isn’t that a little twisted around?"

It was a good question, and we had been at this particular research project long enough to have a good answer. “I’m interested in the gratitude effect on the person giving to a charity. It’s part of our team's theory that social impact activities actually make you feel better. We are discovering that the benefits of philanthropy come full circle in people's lives.”

Our team was deep into the research. We had become convinced that giving to a charity is a powerful reminder that if you can give a little, you’ve got a lot. In my book, that’s called gratitude. And gratitude was landing smack dab in the middle of the intersection between philanthropy and positive psychology.

The research on the benefits of gratitude is growing, my sister confirmed. People who practice gratitude report stronger immune systems, more positive emotions, lower blood pressure, increased happiness, more compassion, and fewer feelings of loneliness.

Practicing gratitude goes hand-in-hand with giving. Our research suggests that feelings of gratitude are one of the most powerful benefits philanthropy can offer to the person doing good for others. Here’s why: When you write a check to your favorite charity, or throw coins into a donation box, or support a cause through a donor-advised fund, your actions automatically reinforce that you’ve got something to give. You become more grateful for what you have.

For lots of people, giving is a key component of their social impact activities and part of a healthy, well-rounded life.

Let’s take a closer look at giving in the context of social impact behavior. Giving as a social impact activity means contributing money to a charitable organization qualified under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3). Giving is important because the charitable organization, in turn, uses the money to support people in need, pay for educational and research activities, engage in the arts, or pursue other charitable endeavors.

What counts as giving? Giving includes writing checks, donating stock, making grants from a family foundation, or even dropping coins in a fountain to support a children’s hospital. When you give, you are contributing to a charity that is improving the quality of life for others.

As a tax attorney, I have always thought late October is a good time to review the rules for how 501(c)(3)s can spend their money. This is how you know your charitable dollars are not only eligible for a deduction, but also well spent!

According to the Internal Revenue Service:

The exempt purposes set forth in Section 501(c)(3) are charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals. The term charitable is used in its generally accepted legal sense and includes relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erecting or maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.

Remember, the tax rules can get complicated, but giving doesn’t have to be. Pick a charity you like. Give a little or a lot. Know you’ve made a difference. Be grateful. Feel good.