I used to think that people who paid to volunteer were doing it wrong. I’d see ads for organizations that facilitate trips to far-off lands, offering you the “right” to volunteer in exchange for some of your hard-earned cash. It just never made sense to me to pay a middle-man, given that there are so many ways to volunteer on your own, even abroad. I’d alway assumed these trips were a rip-off, or that an organization was unfairly profiting from selling people the “opportunity” to volunteer. But then I read Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton’s work on the connections between how we spend money and how we feel as a result changed my perspective on these pay-to-help opportunities.
One of the main theses of Happy Money is that it’s more meaningful to buy experiences than it is to buy objects. You may be excited by a beautiful new coat, but buying a beautiful experience may technically have a longer residual effect on your overall well-being. Happy Money discusses many different research studies that have led to this conclusion, and the authors recommend that you shift some of your material spending over to experiential spending.
Another main theses? Investing in others makes you happier. Whether it’s spending 15 minutes per week volunteering, taking a friend out to dinner, or doing something along the lines of The Giving Pledge, humans show a stronger sense of contentment when they use some of their resources on others. It doesn’t even have to be a huge amount. It boosts your happiness just knowing that you’ve helped someone else.
Putting these two theses helps justify why it can actually be quite meaningful to pay to volunteer. Think of it this way: instead of spending money on a nicer car, you decide to spend it on a trip. And instead of spending that whole trip on the beach, you decide to spend a good part of it volunteering to build a new health clinic in an impoverished community. You’ve now optimized your spending by buying an experience and at the same time, used your money to invest in others. Two principles of “happy money,” right then and there.
Now, I’m not advocating that we ditch the “free” chances to volunteer – volunteering shouldn’t just be a means to optimize your own happiness, so your choices shouldn’t truly be driven by how you think you’ll benefit the most. But the book suddenly made it clear to me how paying a middle-man could actually boost the effect you get from helping others, and make your trip even more fulfilling.
As you think about how you want to spend your money in 2014, I highly recommend you check out Happy Money. It’s more of a research discussion than a financial tome, and it’s full of interesting, head-scratching conclusions. Plus, it’s full of clever puns – and what’s better than that?