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In their current advertising, the folks at Best Buy proclaim that the store is, “You, Happier.” The message is clear: If you aren’t really happy right now, just buy an iPod, a few more DVDs, or a state-of-the-art home entertainment system. Then, you’ll be jumping for joy!

My family enjoyed spending time this summer with friends from Dallas who now are living in Scotland. Catching up with friends, a slower pace, and cool Highland breezes certainly made us all happy. Admittedly, the in-flight movies and video games on the airplane made my young son very happy. Have you ever thought about what makes you happy?

The July-August 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review reports information about happiness resulting from the research of Michael Norton at HarvardBusinessSchool, along with Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Norton and Dunn noted that companies often give cash bonuses in order to express appreciation and make employees happy. But, they discovered that simply receiving the bonuses did not really affect the employees’ happiness; it was how the employees actually spent the bonuses that mattered. Furthermore, the sizes of the bonuses were irrelevant.

The employees who spent their bonuses on themselves (buying the new iPods, DVDs or home entertainment systems) had no real boost in their happiness. But, the employees who spent their bonus money to benefit others reported genuine boosts in happiness. That was true even if they only spent a portion of their bonuses on other people.

In order to test these results, the researchers gave 46 volunteers either $5 or $20 to spend during a day. Half of the volunteers were randomly selected to spend the money on themselves. The other half were told to spend it on others.

The results were clear. Regardless of the amount of money they received, the people who spent the money on others throughout the day were “significantly happier” at the end of the test than the people who spent it on themselves. 

This is probably no surprise to you. But, it’s nice to have some academic research to back up what you intuitively may know. Charitable giving—including more structured, strategic philanthropy—works both ways. It makes life better for others. And, it also makes life better for you.

For several years, this has been demonstrated effectively by the Entrepreneurs Foundation of North Texas, which operates through a fund at CFT. On September 11, EFNT organizes its annual Freedom Day service project for member companies who align with EFNT to show their employees and customers that “doing well” and “doing good” can co-exist in the corporate world. This year, the Freedom Day volunteers will be performing much-needed makeovers for several firehouses across Dallas through the donation of both money and time. This will be a powerful way to express gratitude and to honor the men and women who protect us every day through our fire department and emergency services. Plus, the volunteers will feel great, too. 

Maybe the foundation should work out a deal with Best Buy for the rights to their slogan. Then, with a slight revision, there could be some truth in advertising—“Giving: You, Happier!”

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