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Why you feel bad every time you ignore the Salvation Army ringer

These children are getting high on giving . (AP Photo/Daily News-Record, Jason Lenhart)
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'Tis the season for studiously ignoring the Salvation Army ringers outside your grocery store, and quietly deleting the email reminders for your office's canned food drive. But new research suggests that it may be better for our overall well-being to give to these causes, and give generously. Not only that, but those of use who are stingy with our contributions - or who don't give at all - may actually be making themselves feel worse.

There's a considerable body of correlational research showing that people who give more of their time and money tend to be happier overall. There's also good reason to suspect that this relationship is causal: being generous actually makes you happier.

But researchers know less about what happens, psychologically, when you only give a little. Or when you don't give at all. So a team of Canadian and Australian researchers devised a lab experiment to find out.

They asked 287 undergraduates to assess their emotional state using the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS), which asks respondents to rate how they're experiencing a range of positive and negative emotions on a five-point scale. The students then performed some tasks to earn a small amount of real-world money -- $4.25 on average.

After completing the tasks, the students were given the opportunity to donate some of their earnings to UNICEF, anonymously. Finally, they filled out the PANAS questionnaire again, which allowed researchers to asses how their emotional state changed after completing the tasks and being solicited for donations.

As expected, those who gave a lot -- defined as more than 50 percent of their in-game earnings -- showed statistically significant boosts in positive emotions, like happiness and pride. But interestingly, those who gave less than 50 percent, or who didn't give at all, actually felt a little worse after the experiment.

The big givers also experienced a significant drop in negative emotions. Stingier respondents experienced a smaller, non-significant drop.

In short, passing up on a charitable donation opportunity is likely to put a damper on your mood. While the authors note they don't have enough data to break out the non-donors from the small donors, these results suggests that a small donation might not make you feel any better than not donating at all. When it comes to giving, in other words, go big or go home.

The authors write that policymakers and charitable organizations should keep this in mind when crafting charitable campaigns: "individuals choosing not to donate bear the emotional costs of donation requests." People who throw their change into that Salvation Army bucket likely walk away feeling good about themselves. But those who choose to pass, whether out of frugality, stinginess, or because they simply can't afford it, are going to feel a little worse.

Still, when looking at the net well-being of all 287 students in the study, the authors found that the positive benefits outweighed the negative ones - the group of students was happier overall as a result of giving.  "Our findings suggest that a donation request can have net positive influence on the well-being of the group targeted by a donation request," they conclude. "Although low-donors and non-donors may experience hedonic costs, high donors experience larger hedonic gains."

Or to put it another way: when it comes to happiness, a rising tide lifts all boats.