What I Really Want for My Birthday, and Why You Might Want the Same Thing

As my birthday approaches later this month, I'm once again faced by the fact that not many people are asking what to get me for a present. Even for those who do ask, historically I haven't had a very good response.

I already have basically everything a person could ask for: a loving family, good health, friends, a job that pays well and enough material things to live a comfortable life. What can I possibly ask for that could make my life significantly better?

What actually makes people happy? We can look toward science to help find the answer. There are a lot of rigorous scientific studies about what makes people happy, as well as some good books on the topic. (I enjoyed Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending and Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.)

Unsurprisingly, what makes people happy is fairly complicated and there's no secret sauce. There's short-term pleasure, like when you eat chocolate. I can buy my own chocolate though, and it seems more appealing to focus on enduring happiness anyway. Researchers have looked for correlations between happiness and many factors, such as money, age, marital status, religion, health, education, gender, and intelligence. Life satisfaction is associated with things like having fulfilling relationships with family and friends, though even that doesn't guarantee happiness. There's a correlation between material wealth and happiness below $75,000 in annual income, but not beyond that level. I'm fortunate enough to be in the latter income category, so a lot of the things correlated with greater happiness can't be easily bought as a birthday present.

However, there is a notable exception--a trend consistent throughout the research on happiness: helping others makes people happier. As an example of such a study, the Gallup World Poll surveyed 200,000 people in 136 countries about a variety of topics, including charitable giving, and found that charitable giving is consistently correlated with higher levels of happiness. Giving has about the same impact on happiness as doubling household income in much of the studied group, even in impoverished countries.

It seems like a good strategy to design my birthday wish to help others. A simple way to do this might be for me to buy presents for other people. But I'd prefer an approach that doesn't just help others, but helps them as much as possible. To continue using science to solve this problem, I can turn to a way of thinking called "effective altruism," which is defined in William MacAskill's thought-provoking book Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference as "asking 'How can I make the biggest difference I can?' and using evidence and careful reasoning to find an answer." One aspect of effective altruism is identifying charities that are well-evidenced to have extremely high impact.

One of the charity evaluators frequently used in the effective altruism community is GiveWell. For my birthday, I'd like people to donate to one of its top recommended charities: the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF). Over a million people die every year from malaria--mostly children in poor countries--and AMF provides mosquito nets to people prone to this disease. There are many scientific studies demonstrating that distributing mosquito nets reduces malaria, and GiveWell has deeply researched AMF to make sure they are good at leading mosquito net distributions. Further, GiveWell estimates that it costs AMF about $5 to purchase and distribute each mosquito net, and their best estimate is that AMF can save a life for roughly $3,400. For those of you who would like to help me give other people birthdays in honor of my birthday, I've set up a fundraising page.

To recap, there are three great things about donating to AMF for my birthday:
  • It would make me happier than any other birthday present I can imagine.
  • It would probably make you happier for doing it.
  • It protects other people from malaria.

Win. Win. Win.

Of course, not everyone would appreciate this type of birthday gift. People might not get the happiness benefits from charitable giving if it wasn't their choice to replace traditional birthday gifts with donations. They might not feel connected to AMF's cause or believe that it is effective at helping others, despite the evidence. It might also disappoint expectations, leaving people with a lack of gratitude for those they expected presents from (there is evidence of a correlation between gratitude and happiness). This approach isn't for everyone, but I'm going to try it this year.

It's up to you if you decide to give me a birthday "present." Most people reading this don't know me, so it is kind of an experiment to see if anyone actually donates. If you do, please write a comment below to let other readers know if it actually made you happier.

Alternatively, consider taking a similar initiative for your next birthday. Maybe this will help you have a happier birthday!