When I moved to Durham for graduate school, I wanted to immediately start volunteering. As a student, I’m aware that time is a relentless constraint. Getting enough sleep, doing work, socializing, and having time to decompress are all priorities. So it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and resistant to the idea of giving up more precious spare time to help others, even if the cause is important.
However, I knew that if I waited I would use my busy schedule as an excuse not to get involved. By pre-committing, I would be obligated to continue even as the semester became busier . I wanted to volunteer as a way to connect to my community and keep perspective that sometimes gets lost in the minutiae of research.
But what I didn’t realize was that I was inadvertently helping my future self feel less stressed when things got busy. Research finds that ironically, giving time to others actually can make us feel as though we have more of it ourselves.
This benefit of spending time on others seems counterintuitive. From a completely objective perspective, spending time on others reduces the minutes you have in a day—those don’t change. And indeed, we are actually less likely to take the time to help others if we’re short on time. However, if we do volunteer, our subjective perception of how much time we have can increase and affect our productivity and well-being.
Mogilner, Chance, and Norton (2012) found that giving time (volunteering or helping a friend) was more effective in increasing perceptions of future time than were wasting time, spending time on oneself, or unexpected free time. Moreover, they found that those who gave their time were more likely to commit more time and follow through on additional surveys. The mediator of this effect was self-efficacy. People feel more capable after taking the time to help others. Spending time on others may implicitly signal extra time, but also increased self-efficacy may make us feel that we can accomplish more with our time, effectively expanding it.
Sometimes, how much time we feel we have is actually more important than how much time we actually have. Because within a range, our feelings about time affect our happiness, stress levels, and productivity more than the actual number of hours.
Does this mean we shouldn’t indulge in TV, Facebook, or relaxing with friends? Of course not—the benefits of giving time aren’t infinite. Given the objective constraints, giving too much time will increase stress and won’t make use feel like we have more time.
Nevertheless, this discrepancy between how we expect volunteering to affect our sense of time, and how it actually does, is important for better budgeting our time. I have noticed that when I get home after volunteering, I immediately respond to all the emails that have been piling up, focus better on my work projects, and feel more accomplished by the end of the night. Despite having less time, I tend to use it more effectively.
Indeed, this mismatch between prediction and results applies to budgeting money as well: although people predict that they will be happier spending money on themselves, they actually feel better and wealthier spending on others.
When we are feeling the constraints of money, time or something else, we may actually help ourselves by giving to others. Moreover, for those who care less about the fuzzy concept of well-being, there are hints in the research suggesting that not only does giving to others affect our outlook, but it also might actually make us more efficient and productive.
The image (and jingle) of the bells of Salvation Army volunteers is almost as synonymous with the holiday season as Santa Claus himself. However, the New York Times reported last month that a change may be coming to a street corner near you; the charity has begun testing the use of a digital donation system called Square that would allow passersby to donate via credit card, rather than have to worry about scrambling for loose change.
The article mentions two potential benefits of this kind of system. First, people are less likely to carry cash on them as they were in the past, and so Square’s credit card system provides people with a quick, simple, and convenient way to donate when they don’t have any real money handy (and with 1 in 7 Americans carrying at least 10 credit cards, this shouldn’t be a problem). Second, a credit card system would be safer because donations would not be vulnerable to theft like money in the kettle has always been.
Still, this credit card system may unintentionally have another significant benefit: it may lead people to want to donate more money than they would otherwise. There is a concept in behavioral economics known as the “pain of paying.” Simply put, it hurts us to spend (and part with) our money. And since buying things with a credit card is a less direct, less tangible way to part with money than using cash, it can feel less painful, and therefore lead people to spend more.
Assuming that this effect generalizes from buying products to donating to charities, Square’s credit card system may actually lead to larger total donations for the Salvation Army, whether it is because more people decide to donate, or because more money is donated by each individual. (Not to mention the possibility that people may feel silly choosing “loose change”-style amounts (e.g., 35 cents) to donate via credit card, and so may round up to the whole dollar for that reason alone).
So Square’s credit card system may, through behavioral economics, lead people to be more generous with their donations to the Salvation Army. If the Salvation Army uses this new system and winds up faring well, perhaps other charities should take note and consider implementing such a system as well.
Have a happy holiday season, everyone! And remember that doing the most good may be just a swipe away.