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How Money Can Buy You Meaning

Giving to others can help you discover your purpose in life.


by Janice Holly Booth

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As in-house philanthropy adviser to one of the world’s largest private banks, Jenny Santi has seen a lot money change hands. Yet despite all the financial institution’s efforts to create legacies and promote social entrepreneurship, Santi sees a glaring deficit. The author of The Giving Way to Happiness writes that “almost nothing out there focuses on the origin of the philanthropic impulse: the heart.”

     See also: The Road to Happiness Begins with Giving

“I believe that givers start giving because they are moved by a cause, but they endure because giving brings them happiness and fulfillment,” she says. It’s not a new concept; in fact, Winston Churchill famously said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Santi’s own philosophy was influenced by her mother, who would sometimes spend her birthday in an orphanage, in the company of children who brought her more joy than a gift ever could.

Santi argues that philanthropy is not just a way to seek happiness; it can serve as a tool to carve out your purpose in life. She cites a Centers for Disease Control supported study that measured people’s satisfaction and sense of meaning in life. The report revealed that 4 out of 10 Americans do not feel they have a satisfying life purpose. Is purpose so elusive that 40 percent of us can’t find it?

Joshua Williams was just four years old when he discovered his purpose, says Santi. Flush with cash from a $20 bill his grandmother had just given him, Joshua saw a homeless man on the side of the road, and told his mom he wanted to help. Rather give the man a dollar or two, Joshua handed over the twenty. A year later, he became the youngest foundation president in the world, leading the Joshua’s Heart Foundation, which he named himself. Now 12, Joshua’s more committed than ever: “Through time you will see who you are helping and the impact you had,” Joshua told Santi. “This leads to happiness. I have a good feeling in my heart.”

     See also: Why Giving Gives Us Purpose

While Joshua’s story is remarkable and inspirational, it’s also unique. Most of us didn’t know our life’s purpose before we started first grade. But even people with money, influence, fame and opportunity sometimes struggle before clicking into their groove. Santi points to the ever-popular actress/director/producer Goldie Hawn whose purpose—teaching children how to develop tools to deal with their emotions and reduce stress—didn’t become a reality until recently. “I was concerned about the well-being of our youth,” Hawn told Santi, so she started the Hawn Foundation and partners with educators to teach resiliency lessons in schools. But as pleased as Hawn is with the work of her foundation, she makes a critical distinction between the happiness she gets from her philanthropic work and the happiness she gets from her career. “You know, you can get enough money to buy a new house, you can buy new shoes. These are all fleeting aspects of happiness. They don’t last. They’re like ripples on the water. They come and go. As long as the money is there, you’re happy, you’re OK. But when you’re really working towards making a difference, you get a deeper, deeper level of satisfaction, because it’s not for you.” Beyond satisfaction, Hawn has a more urgent message: “When you have a purpose-driven life, you’re a happier person. You’re engaged. You’re alive.”

Hawn’s Foundation reported revenue of $1.2 million in 2013, while Joshua’s brought in $112,000. Joshua was a kid who started with $20; Hawn was an Academy-award winner who started with an idea. Their journeys couldn’t be more different, yet they report arriving at the same life-affirming, energizing, world-changing, happiness-making results.

How to start flexing your philanthropic muscles, whether you’ve got ten bucks in your pocket or ten million in the bank? Santi offers these suggestions.

     See also:  Get More From Giving

Find your passion. “I truly believe this should be the foundation for your giving,” says Santi. Find out what you care about, whom you care about, what matters to you and what you want to change.

Form your vision. Ask yourself, what do you want the world to look like?

Settle into your niche. Armed with an understanding of your motives and what you can contribute, decide on the focus of your giving.

Donate your time. Giving is by no means limited to gifts of money. “We don’t all have the same amount of money, but we all have time and can give some of this to others,” says Santi.

Chunk your giving. A study showed that giving in one chunk (performing five acts of kindness in one day) as opposed to “sprinkling” (one act of kindness every day for 5 days) was more effective in creating happiness in the givers.

Give with focus and intention. “There are thousands of worthy charities, and we should not feel bad about choosing where we’d like to give. Many generous people prefer to give in different ways, knowing that some donations have more impact than others,” says Santi. “It helps to do things more purposefully.”