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Is Kindness The Key To True Happiness?

20/12/2010 10:12 | Updated 22 May 2015

With all the jingly-belled adverts and '70% off!' emails popping into your inbox daily, you just can't get away from the fact that Christmas is a time for giving (reindeer slippers, nicely packaged chutneys, smelly candles...) but if science is to be believed, we might all have a happier Christmas if we went without the gifts and trimmings and gave all the cash to charity instead. Really.

One man lives in the spirit of Christmas all year long. Toby Ord, from London, was in the news recently with his intention to give £1m to charity in his lifetime. He's no millionaire – just an ordinary bloke who earns salary of around £30k. Except, he's not ordinary – he is made extraordinary by the fact that he gives away one third of his earnings to charity.

And why? Because it makes him feel better as a person. Giving away a large chunk of his wealth has, he says, liberated him. Having worked out that he needed no more than £20k per year to live a comfortable, albeit frugal life, he has vowed to give away every penny he earns above that amount. So last year's gift was in the region of £10k.

Wow. Ord is certainly inspiring. And if you think he's crackers (pardon the pun), just a little bit if internet research will confirm what he's saying. Dr Elizabeth Dunn, a researcher in British Columbia, found striking evidence that spending money on others makes people happier than if they spend it on themselves. Admittedly, the largest sample she used was 600, the smallest was 16 – but the results from three separate experiments all pointed to one thing – being kind makes you happy.

So I wonder, why does the thought of such generosity feel so alien? I'd like to think many of us would dig our hands in our pockets for a few quid when the right cause presented itself. But giving away a third of you earnings – can you imagine it? I suppose it is ingrained in our culture that what's ours is ours – and often, we think we still don't have enough. Never mind that even people in our own society (as opposed to drought-stricken Africa, for example) are presented with a wide range of opportunities, or lack of them, our programming says that what we earn is just for us, and we look after our own.

Please don't think I'm getting on my soapbox here. This was my thought process when I read about Ord:

1. he's mad

2. ah! He has a wife who is a doctor

3. aha! He doesn't have children to think about, who need a phenomenal amount of food putting in them each day and new shoes buying every eight weeks (perhaps I should stop feeding them so much?!)

But on paper his arguments make complete sense and it's hard to argue with a man who says he is happier for doing what he's doing. His wife is a doctor, but she has made a pledge too, that she will not keep more than £25k of her earnings each year. And I don't know if they plan to have children but I expect they'll calculate the exact amount of money it'll take to raise them and work out a new equation.

So should we be following his lead? Undoubtedly, even after their generosity, Ord and his wife are still better off than many and, in times of hardship, when people are facing redundancy and cuts in pay and benefits, is is hard to imagine giving what we think we can not afford. But generosity does not always have a £ in front of it. When done freely, without obligation, giving our time apparently has the same benefits to our sense of wellbeing. It would seem if we all took a leaf out of Ord's book this Christmas, we'd be making a difference to someone, somewhere – and we'd be giving ourselves a gift that money can't buy. That's festive food for thought isn't it?

By: Pip Jones

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