VANCOUVER - Holiday season leave you feeling like decking one of the halls? Like ringing Santa's bell?
If you're on the verge of a mall-induced rampage, maybe it's time to try giving instead of buying.
Studies show charitable giving boosts happiness and reduces stress, says Lara Aknin, an assistant professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University.
"Giving makes you happy," says Aknin, whose many studies of the link between philanthropy and well-being included measuring cortisol in the bloodstream. That study found that when people gave more, the stress hormone dissipated more quickly in their blood.
"When people are spending money in a way that they're giving to others by way of charity, we see similar emotional boosts. It's more rewarding than spending money on yourself," Aknin says.
Another study found the reward is even greater when giving is a social activity, she says.
In short, good deeds put us in a good mood, but when it comes to playing Santa for social good, make sure you know who has been naughty and who has been nice.
MoneySense Magazine issues an annual list of the top 100 charities, based on its analysis of fundraising and spending activities.
This year, the magazine gave top grades to the Nature Conservancy Canada, the Canadian Red Cross, the Calgary Interfaith Food Bank, the Royal Ontario Museum Foundation and the United Way, among others. The Calgary Foundation, the Edmonton Community Foundation and the Vancouver Foundation also made the grade for their program spending, fundraising costs, governance, transparency and cash reserves.
The Canadian Red Cross, which funds emergency relief at home and abroad, is a perennial favourite, spending 80 per cent of its funds on charitable programs and just four per cent on management and administration.
The international humanitarian organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, tends to go where others fear to tread, including conflict and disaster zones.
The Canadian branch spends 80 per cent of its funds on charitable programs and four per cent on administration.
The Canada Revenue Agency says Santa's elves should make sure their charity of choice shares their good intentions.
The agency website has a searchable database of registered charities that includes a breakdown of how much is spent on charitable programs in comparison to how much goes toward administration, political activities and payroll.
Individual food banks are easily searchable on the site, but most spend at least nine cents of every dime on feeding the hungry. The Union Gospel Mission Foundation in Vancouver spends 94 per cent and Food Banks Canada spends 91 per cent.
"Confirm that the organization is a Canadian registered charity or a qualified donee," says Mylene Croteau, a spokeswoman for the Canada Revenue Agency.
And get to know the charity, she says.
"Start by visiting the charity's website to learn about its activities and how it's managed... One of the best ways to learn about a charity is to volunteer."
Some charities are more generous than others when it comes to funnelling donated funds into action. And then there's the just plain naughty.
"Learn to recognize the signs of fraud," Croteau says.
There are some disappointing revelations on the website. More than one charity incorporating "missing children" in its title has had its charitable status revoked, and some popular animal welfare or environmental groups are not, in fact, registered because they do not meet the criteria.
Canadians are a generous bunch, according to Statistics Canada.
In 2010, individual Canucks passed $10.6 billion to charitable or non-profit organizations. Just under 24 million people aged 15 and over reported at least one financial donation that year.
Women were more likely than men to have made at least one financial donation (86 per cent compared with 82) and people who attend religious meetings or services at least once a week were more inclined to donate.
When it comes to giving, it seems West is best. Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia gave the highest average amounts ($562, $544 and $543).