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a paradoxical key to money happiness

In this week’s final session of my summer workshop series, we took the 50,000 foot view and asked ourselves the big questions — what is money? What is value? Where is God in all of this? We even came up with a few answers, one of which is this: paradoxically, one of the best things you can do with your money is this: give it away.

As it happens, there’s scientific backing for this one. Some oft-quoted research by Elizabeth Dunn and others at the University of British Columbia shows that giving money away increases one’s (self-rated) happiness level, while spending it on yourself generally doesn’t, or perhaps at least not for long enough to be measurable. Yes, Virginia, money can buy happiness. But why? Well, there are a few thoughts on that one.

Relationships, not material goods, are what make people truly happy. You might have all the stuff (or experiences) that money can buy, but with no one to share it with, how happy is that going to really make you? The scientists hypothesized that in giving money away, you’re spending money on relationships, which create a more long-lasting happiness.

Conversely, not sharing your money can be stressful. Another study by these scientists showed increased levels of reported shame (and measured stress hormone) in participants who did not share their money when given the opportunity. It seems that we’re physically hardwired to share, and when we let our fear or greed override that impulse, we suffer for it.

Finally, it’s about freedom. As we discussed in the workshop, all too often our money ends up controlling us, rather than the other way around. We don’t want to give our money away, though many of us can’t even articulate the deep, nameless fear that drives us. When we do share, however, we are breaking free of that fear and showing our willingness to rely more on each other.

And is so often the case, breaking free of fear — stepping out in faith — gives us a joy and peace that cannot be matched by anything (else) money can buy.

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