How to Donate Your Money (I): Focus on Reducing Unhappiness First


A previous post argued that unhappiness can be the much stronger emotion compared to unhappiness. If this view is correct, what are the implications?

I believe one implication is: if we want more happiness in the world, we should be primarily concerned with reducing unhappiness and suffering.1 This may appear obvious, but it’s still useful to have a theoretical explanation why this makes sense (as laid out in mentioned article).

From a practical perspective, this conclusion may urge donors and charities to consider their engagements in the light of which reduce most unhappiness2. This is frequently done, but not always. Money is often spent for “good causes” but could be spent for even “better causes” which reduce unhappiness to a higher extent.3

However, to be fair, this critique comes with two major caveats:

  • The question which spending reduces most unhappiness is far from straightforward
    For example, measures to increase happiness in areas where happiness is already fairly high (such as developed countries) may well lead to significantly less unhappiness, for example if this triggers the developed countries to spend more for good causes (see happiness begets happiness). In other words, happiness – which is usually an end in itself – can also be a means to an end in some cases.

    Also, it’s tricky to say which actions directed at reducing unhappiness actually succeed, or may even make matters worse. For example, some argue giving direct aid to poor countries may risk doing more bad than good. It’s not easy, and therefore I believe that the increasing analytical approach and professionalism in philanthropy is a good trend.

  • The cause originates the donation
    Critique for donations not being spent the “most effective” way should be applied with care; instead, it should be valued that people give their hard earned money for a good cause at all.

    This is especially true when considering that many donations are originated by their cause. For example, if we omit giving money to a charity worker on the street it does not mean that we would have spent it for other good causes. Most likely we would not have spent it at all.

In summary, my recommendation to donors is the following: When deciding how to spend money (assuming it is not already predetermined by the cause that originated the donation), the reduction of unhappiness should be on top of the agenda. It should be consciously laid down in what ways the donated money will achieve that, and questioned critically whether there may be more effective ways.

One of the future posts will aim to initiate a discussion for an objective “guideline” how to spend money in order to reduce most unhappiness. Until then, I am happy for your feedback as always. :-)

1) Actually this conclusion is not forced, because we also need to consider a) the existing distribution on the “happiness scale” and especially b) how difficult it is to change the status of the “points on the scale”. However, it seems to be easier to reduce unhappiness among unhappy people than make happier people happier, so the conclusion is the same as mentioned above.

2) Assuming happiness is the main goal to strive for, which will be discussed in a future post.

3) For example (without having looked at it in detail) I believe there are more effective ways for reducing unhappiness than donating it for the renovation of historic buildings in rich countries.

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