(Laura's note: This column ran in USA Today yesterday. Thanks to everyone who sent me their thoughts on the topic!)
Come December, many Americans add this tradition to the obvious trees and carols: the annual digging out of the checkbook, as we respond to charity solicitations. The average family will give roughly 3% of household income away by the end of the year to myriad causes that, in tight times, seem more pressing than ever. But about 5% do much better, giving at least a tithe, or 10%, often for religious reasons. Many people believe that the Bible prescribes tithing with the idea that the bulk of this giving should go to one's local church.
It's obvious why churches see an upside to people loading down the collection plate. But new insights from happiness research suggest that tithing could benefit the giver too, even if you don't believe it's a religious obligation. Indeed, given how much money people spend pursuing happiness, tithing might be a relative bargain.
While 10% sounds like a lot, tithing advocates note that it's only a lot in the context of giving. In the context of, say, housing, 10% sounds cheap. "I think 10% is enough that it hurts every paycheck but doesn't make me unable to live in the community," says Greg Rohlinger, pastor of the Palm Valley Community Church in Goodyear, Ariz. After all, "God could have said 90%. He can have whatever he wants. We can be thankful he said 10." As for whether this is 10% before or after taxes, Rohlinger says "that's between you and the Lord," but he asks "whether you want to be blessed off the gross or the net."
This idea of framing giving in terms of the blessing one receives from it sounds strange, but some people take that idea literally — that if you tithe, God will give back to you. As the book of Malachi says, "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse … and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have enough room for it."
Melanie Harvey of Columbus, Ohio, has long given about 10% of her income to various causes. Then, facing lower child support payments this year, she got a raise, "un-asked for, unexpected, and really they didn't even tell me. I had to figure it out from the overweight paycheck," she says. Thanks to that, "we have not suffered a bit financially."
Nonetheless, as Rohlinger says, "I don't think it's biblical to say Publishers Clearing House is going to show up at your door with a $10 million check because you tithed." The most clear-cut benefit is a boosted mood.
At least that's the implication of a paper published in Science in 2008. Researchers Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin and Michael Norton ran experiments testing the effects of "prosocial spending" — that is, spending on gifts or charity. For one, they gave people $5 or $20, and assigned them to spend the money by 5 p.m. on either themselves or someone else. The size of the windfall didn't matter, but those in the group assigned to give money away reported a significant uptick in happiness compared with where the day started. The others did not. For the same article, the researchers also followed a group of employees who received an end-of-year profit-sharing bonus. They measured their moods before and after. The only significant predictor of happiness at the second check-in was prosocial spending — what chunk of the bonus was spent on gifts and charitable donations.
Though this doesn't make intuitive sense (Wouldn't buying yourself a DVD make you happier than buying someone else a DVD?), humans are social creatures. Giving establishes bonds in a way that trumps rationality. This is why smart charities now showcase people who benefit from your gifts. They know it makes the giver happy.
A real social network
This importance of social ties brings us to the particular brilliance of tithing. Done as most people envision it — that is, giving generously to your local church — tithing helps build the ultimate social network: a thriving community of people who will care for you, pray for you and help you in tough times. As Rohlinger says of his church, "In our small groups, when there is a financial need, we encourage people to meet it."
People who have close-knit networks are happier and healthier than others, too. Breast cancer patients, for instance, are less likely to die or suffer a relapse if they have strong social ties. Other research has found that spending money nurturing strong social ties — which for believers would include their brothers and sisters in the faith — produces greater happiness than spending on weak ties (other random people).
Of course, most tithers don't cite "happiness" as a reason for their generosity. When I put it that way to Jennie Aguirre, an Arizona resident who tithes, she said, "That's a weird word. I think it makes me peaceful."
But both religious and non-religious types spend a great deal of money on the pursuit of happiness — buying bigger houses, flashier cars, the latest gadgets, even plastic surgery or mind-altering drugs. If a tithe comes with a high likelihood of actually purchasing that elusive state, it starts to sound pretty cheap.
Laura Vanderkam, author of the forthcoming All the Money in the World, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.