Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

giving-money

(Photo: Sirozha/Shutterstock)

Be Happier: Spend More Money on Others

• February 05, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: Sirozha/Shutterstock)

A round-up of recent research finds spending money on others can satisfy basic psychological needs and boost happiness.

If you want to feel happier—and who doesn’t—what should you do with that $20 you have in your pocket?

The evidence is clear, according to a new research paper: You should use it to help someone in need.

Psychologists Elizabeth Dunn and Lara Aknin, along with Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, report that the benefits of helping others “are evident in givers old and young in countries around the world, and extend to not only subjective well-being, but also objective health.”

Writing in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, they demonstrate this counter-intuitive thesis by describing a series of studies, many of which they conducted themselves.

The benefits of helping others “are evident in givers old and young in countries around the world, and extend to not only subjective well-being, but also objective health.”

The researchers begin by summarizing their own 2008 study, in which participants were given either $5 or $20 to spend by the end of the day. Half were instructed to buy themselves something; the others used it help out somebody else.

“That evening, people who had been assigned to spend the money on someone else reported happier moods over the course of the day than did those people assigned to spend the money on themselves,” they report.

They also point to a 2012 study, co-authored by Aknin, which found evidence that even young children feel happiness giving to others. Toddlers just under the age of two “exhibited more happiness” when they gave away goldfish crackers to a puppet character, compared to when they received the snacks themselves.

What’s more, this relationship does not seem to be exclusive to the U.S. or other wealthy nations. Aknin looked at data for 136 countries, and found “a significant relationship between giving and happiness” in 120 of them, “poor and rich alike.”

The researchers concede that other evidence suggests giving to others does not automatically increase happiness. So under what specific circumstances does this positive dynamic occur?

They find a likely answer in self-determination theory, which states that “human well-being depends upon the satisfaction of three basic needs: relatedness, competence, and autonomy.” Under the right circumstances, giving money can meet all three.

Regarding relatedness, “we found that individuals garner more happiness from pro-social spending when giving provides the opportunity to connect with other people,” they write. The need to demonstrate competence can be met “if people can see how their generous actions have made a difference.” And the “need for autonomy is satisfied when people feel that their actions are freely chosen.”

That last point is supported by a 2010 study that found “people experienced happier moods when they gave more money away—but only if they had a choice about how much to give.”

The researchers argue that these insights can be of use to charities and other organizations asking for donations. The more they “can maximize the emotional benefits of giving,” the more likely the donor will give additional dollars the next time they are asked.

So non-profits may benefit from promoting helpful activities one can do with a friend, such as a clean-up-the-beach day, or an afternoon accepting pledges at your local public radio station.

And they can help people see the impact of their donation by designating it for a specific, concrete purpose. As the researchers note, the vague notion of “improving children’s health” is far less satisfying than the specific image of buying bed nets to prevent Third-World kids from getting malaria.

An intelligently designed charitable appeal doesn’t guilt us into giving: It provides a framework that allows us to feel good about ourselves while we help others. And that’s a very happy combination.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.