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Living on Less to Give More

The SUV turning into Phil Gulley’s Danville, Indiana, driveway was huge. Bright, shiny and fresh off the assembly line in neighboring Oakville, the SUV—with Phil’s friend Jerry at the wheel—could haul an entire indoor under-10 girls soccer team to the school gym, seven guys to shoot hoops at the town hall, or Phil, his wife, and two sets of in-laws over the river and through the snow to a community Christmas gathering.

What’s more, the SUV was safe as a tank and could haul both neighbors and bean dip to a church potluck anywhere in four counties—not an insignificant factor since Phil is a Quaker pastor.

“We should get one,” he announced to his wife, Joann, after Jerry had left. “They’re only $40,000.”

Joann’s reaction—“That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard!” as Phil recalls her saying—was direct and to the point. Their little Toyota had only 120,000 miles on it. And what about the commitment they’d made to one another to live on less so they’d have more to share with those who needed a helping hand?

Years ago, Phil and Joann chose a lifestyle that would allow them to do it. And it wasn’t because, as a pastor, Phil had to walk the talk. It was because sharing what they had was who they were. It made them happy.

Not that either one had recognized that right off. “When we first got married, we never had much extra,” Phil explains. But then he began to write books based on the small-town antics of a Quaker church’s members and the faithful pastor who tried to keep them all out of trouble, and things changed. Book reviewers raved about his work, the books became best-sellers, and Phil and Joann were stunned when the first royalty check arrived in the mail from his publisher.

Unfortunately, neither Phil nor Joann were accustomed to handling much money. “When that first check came, we just kind of blew through it,” Phil admits ruefully. “Three months later, we looked at each other and were just sick about it. We felt like we’d eaten too much junk food.”

They quickly realized that they’d stumbled onto the wrong path. So they took a step back, returned to a simpler lifestyle, vowed to one another that they’d stick to it, and were amazed to find that sharing the money from Phil’s royalties with others made them happier than spending it on a brand new computer that did everything but make coffee. “We found that generosity gives us joy,” Phil says.

An emerging trend

We Americans are a generous lot: Individuals gave more than $264 billion to charity last year alone. It’s a mind-boggling sum, particularly when you realize that it’s not easy for a lot of us to find even an extra $10 for those who need help. But as Phil points out, “Philanthropy and generosity are not the purview of the wealthy. Even the poorest among us are given opportunities to be generous.”

How do we manage to give so much? At least part of the answer is that Phil and Joann are not the only two people on the planet who are driving secondhand cars so they can save a few extra dollars to share with others. In fact, they may actually be on the leading edge of an emerging trend, says Keith Curtis, who chairs Giving USA, the nonprofit research group that tracks charitable giving in the United States and gives donors, nonprofits and professional fundraisers the hard data they need to function.
“There’s no data yet, but we see it every day,” Keith says. “Once they’ve taken care of their kids, people want to give back and make their community a better place. They know people have needs and they want to help. They want to make a difference.”

Shawn Landres, Ph.D., co-founder of Jumpstart, a Los Angeles think tank known for its research into charitable giving, says that Keith’s comments resonate. “We don’t have the data,” agrees Shawn, “but we do know that there are people with resources who are now choosing to give to a charity rather than buy that extra boat or that $5,000 case of Champagne.

“There’s also a generational style that has people choosing to live more intentionally,” he adds. “They’re no longer doing the pledged giving that our parents did.” Instead, Shawn says, they’re doing things like crowd-funding or forming a “giving circle,” in which one person will, instead of writing a single check for $100, bring together a group of friends, neighbors, co-workers and the like to collectively write a check for $1,000.

Hardwired to give

One of the things that encourages us to reach into our pockets to help others is that we are hardwired to give. Northwestern University professor Jordan Grafman, Ph.D., was one of the first researchers to investigate the relationship between the brain and giving. In a study that appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2006, Jordan conducted brain imaging studies that demonstrated that giving activates parts of the brain rich with receptors for the feel-good neuropeptide oxytocin—the same chemical that’s associated with the warm glow of happiness we get from food and sex.

But there is one caveat. “Context matters,” Jordan says. If you give simply to get something back—increase your social status, look good to your friends or impress your boss, for example—then imaging studies show that you’re just going to feel a flicker of that warm, happy glow rather than a full blast of over-the-top joy.

Individuals make up the lion’s share of charitable contributions,” says Una Osili, Ph.D., director of research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in Indianapolis. “They account for 71 percent of all giving.”

If giving causes you to have to sacrifice something, however, whether it’s the ability to buy a latte every morning on the way to work or the opportunity to see a new film with friends, then brain studies show that you’ll get the full blast. Now chief of neuroscience at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Jordan explains that, “When you give something at a cost to yourself, that’s when you really get a big effect.”

A landmark study at the University of Oregon, published in 2007 in Science magazine, backs Jordan up. Researchers there gave 19 students $100 each and told them that any money left over at the end of the study was theirs to keep. The students were then wired up to an fMRI imaging machine as they watched a computer program. The program told them about a food bank that needed money, and then randomly did a number of things with the cash in the students’ online “accounts.” Some students watched as their money was given to the food bank. Others were given the opportunity to donate to the food bank—the choice was theirs. Still others saw extra money suddenly appear in their accounts.

The brain scans’ results were astounding. The givers—whether or not they had donated their money voluntarily—were happier than those who received the gifts of cash. The “pleasure zones” in the charitable students’ brains “lit up,” as the Science article explained.

But how much giving does it take to get that happy buzz? To find out, for a study published in a 2008 article in Science, researcher Lara Aknin, Ph.D., from the University of British Columbia (she is now at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia) cruised the city streets of Vancouver with a box of envelopes. She approached people at random and asked them to be part of an experiment. If they agreed, she asked them to rate their happiness that day, then got their phone numbers and gave them one of the envelopes.

In the envelope was either a $5 or $20 bill, plus a note. For some of the study participants, the note said, “Please spend this [amount] today before 5 p.m. on a gift for yourself or for any of your expenses.” For others in the study, the note said: “Please spend this [amount] today before 5 p.m. on a gift for someone else or a donation to charity.”

That evening Lara contacted each person who had accepted an envelope, asked them how happy they were and how they’d spent their money.

The result? Not only did those who had spent their money on others feel far happier than those who had spent it on themselves, but it really didn’t matter whether someone had spent $5 or $20. Those who gave away $5 were just as happy as those who gave away $20.

The benefits of a giving life

Aside from the sheer joy of giving in the moment, making a commitment to living on less to give more as a daily practice in your life can extend that joy—and bring a few unexpected benefits.

Steve Cleaver, a yoga instructor and the school coordinator at Richmond Friends School in Richmond, Indiana, knows this firsthand. Steve grew up as one of five kids on a farm, then went to college and grad school. But as he went from a house to school to an apartment, to another house, he began to feel as though his life was cluttered up by stuff.

According to Giving USA's Annual Report on Philanthropy for 2015 (the most recent data available): $264.58 billion in charitable contributions comes from individuals, $58.46 billion from foundations, $31.76 billion from bequests and $18.45 billion from corporations.”

So when he took a job at a yoga retreat center, he also took it as an opportunity to give things away that he didn’t use. And that was an eye-opener.

“I began to look at what I had and what I bought in a new way,” he explains. “I’d grown up without a lot, and I struggled for a long time with the idea that having things was the way to go. I just felt I had to buy, buy, buy.

“When I began to give it all away, however, I found that if I can live on less, I worry about less. I don’t have to worry about getting stuff, and I don’t have to worry about maintaining it. I also found that living on less gave me a sense of security,” he adds. “It’s like backpacking. You know you have everything you really need right on your back.”

Now, instead of focusing on what he’s going to buy, Steve focuses on what he’s going to give—primarily to local artists, dancers, musicians, writers, filmmakers and designers through the online crowd-funding sites Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

“I found that I’d rather invest in people than in things I don’t really need,” Steve explains. “That’s what makes me happy.” That kind of giving is something that resonates with Philadelphia conference planner Susan Lee Barton.

Susan Lee has had a lifelong love of nonprofit organizations that actively lift people up and try to make the world a better place. Some of the groups she’s supported over the years share conflict management skills in Africa, develop reconciliation initiatives in Indonesia and offer workshops on alternatives to violence in Colombia.

But finding the money to support these groups wasn’t always easy. “For a big part of my life I had been trying to increase what I gave to nonprofit organizations like these, but I was having trouble doing it,” Susan Lee says. Fortunately, while she was working at Right Sharing of World Resources, an organization that lends small amounts of money to women in Kenya, Sierra Leone and south India so they can launch small businesses that fit the markets available in their local economy, she had a conversation with co-worker Bob Barnes.
“Bob challenged me to think about my possessions, how they affected me, and how they affected my relationship with God,” recalls Susan Lee, who takes her faith seriously. She did as Bob suggested, and was eventually led to make two serious changes in how she lived. The first was to give up her car, the cost of which had put her into debt. And the second was to move from an apartment into an interfaith community that shared a house in Philadelphia.

Those two decisions single-handedly erased her debt and enabled her to increase her donations to the nonprofits whose work she so loves. But they also had a couple of unexpected benefits: All the walking she does without a car have made her a healthier woman, and living in community with others—a community in which people gather for morning worship, shared dinners, workshops, work parties and celebrations—has brought her unexpected joy.

Joy, health, freedom, a simpler life, a sense of security and a loving community—living on less to give more to others may actually be the gift you give yourself.

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