Give what you can

What would you say if someone asked you to donate 10 per cent of your income every year to charity? Well, if you’re a student, you’d probably tell them to go suck an egg. For some students, giving away 10 per cent of their income would mean being unable to afford rent. But what about after you graduate? Canadian university graduates earn an average of $48,600 each year. That’s $35,166 after tax in Manitoba. Would you be willing to donate $3,500 every year?

Toby Ord, a philosophy researcher in Britain, is advocating that you do just that. He suggests that, for many people, that 10 per cent would be far better spent on helping to fight poverty in the developing world. Ord himself has promised to donate everything he earns over £20,000 (CAD $35,000) to charities. Everything he needs for a happy and fulfilled life, Ord argues, can be afforded on £20,000 a year. Ord’s website,, describes how more money is spent on luxuries like perfume and cosmetics than it would take to provide basic health and nutrition to people living in the developing world. The site even includes a calculator to demonstrate the positive impact a 10 per cent annual donation could have.

Aside from advocating for a good cause, Ord raises a very important question. How much do we really need to be happy? Several studies have indicated that once individuals are able to afford the basic necessities of life, their happiness doesn’t change much. So while that $3,500 could extend the lives of hundreds of people in the developing world, it probably won’t make you much happier. Even if you’re not interested in donating 10 per cent of your income, this still raises questions over the drive for wealth. Why spend 60 hours a week at work if the wealth it creates will not make you happy? Why spend 50 years working to afford a big house and an expensive car when you would have been just as happy with an apartment and a bicycle?

So if increased wealth doesn’t make you happy, why do Canadians continue to work more and more hours? According to Statistics Canada, workers spent an average of 30 minutes more per day on work in 2005 than they did in 1986. During that same time period, Canadian workers spent an average of 45 minutes less per day with their families. Has this led to greater happiness? Well, it certainly wouldn’t make me very happy.

If the ideology of “live to work” is not necessarily increasing happiness, perhaps a change is needed. Downshifting is a behaviour that focuses on personal well-being rather than economic success. Work downshifters usually decrease the number of hours they work, as well their spending levels. In this ideology, time is valued higher than material goods or social status. Although a greater degree of free time is not guaranteed to increase happiness, research has shown that there is a strong correlation between the two.

Even if reducing your workweek isn’t a possibility, workers need not abandon the principles of downshifting. Decreased consumption could mean an earlier retirement, money to pay for your child’s education, or the ability to help hundreds of people in need. A decrease in consumption would also lead to reduced waste and a conservation of natural resources. On a grander scale, living more simply could even lead to the downfall of that pesky economic system we call “capitalism.”

Decreasing your level of consumption is no easy feat. The consumer culture makes it very difficult for individuals to divorce personal happiness from the consumption of material goods. Advertisements show happy, attractive people using an iPhone, and we’re sold. Forget early retirement, I want a compass in my cell phone. But the consumer culture does not make good on its promise of a happier existence. Instead it reduces our lives to the pursuit of material gain.

Still, there is hope, especially for students. Unlike the fully-employed, students are experienced in the art of living on less. If students can carry on their frugal spending habits after graduation they may be able to avoid the rat race and lead a more enjoyable life.

What’s an iPhone compared to a lifetime of happiness?

Shawna Finnegan is the Online Editor at the Manitoban.

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