Unselfish Spending Boosts Happiness
To Be Happier, Spending Money on Others Beats Spending on Yourself, Study Shows
March 20, 2008 -- Want to feel happier? Spending money on other people or
charities may make you feel better than splurging on something for
Researchers report that news in tomorrow's edition of Science.
First, they asked 632 Americans to rate their general happiness and report
their income and spending, including bills, gifts for others, gifts for
themselves, and charitable donations.
The happiest people were the biggest givers, no matter what they earned,
note the researchers, who included Elizabeth Dunn, PhD, of the psychology
department at Canada's University of British Columbia.
"Regardless of how much income each person made, those who spent money
on others reported greater happiness, while those who spent more on themselves
did not," Dunn says in a news release.
Next, Dunn's team asked 16 employees at a Boston company to rate their
happiness one month before receiving a bonus from their company, and again six
to eight weeks after getting the bonus.
The workers also reported how they spent the bonus. Those who gave more of
their bonus money to other people or charities were happier after getting the
Big bonus, small bonus -- that didn't matter. It wasn't about the size of
the check; it was about how it was spent.
Giving in Action
Surveys are one thing. But what happens when people have cash in hand, and
an order to spend that money before sundown?
Dunn and colleagues gave $5 or $20 to 46 people on the University of British
Columbia's Vancouver campus. With the cash came instructions to spend the money
by 5 p.m.
Some participants were told to spend the money on their rent, bills, or a
gift for themselves. Others were told to use the money to buy someone else a
gift or to donate it to charity.
Once again, the givers were the happiest at the end of the day, according to
surveys they completed before getting the cash and after spending it.
And as with the corporate bonus, the amount of money didn't matter. People
didn't have to give away $20 to feel better; giving as little as $5 helped.
"Our findings suggest that very minor alterations in spending
allocations -- as little as $5 ... may be sufficient to produce nontrivial
gains in happiness on a given day," Dunn's team writes.
Not What They Expected
Lastly, Dunn's team asked 109 University of British Columbia students -- who
hadn't participated in Dunn's other experiments -- if they thought they would
be happier spending $5 or $20 on themselves or on others.
Most students missed the mark.
"Participants were doubly wrong about the impact of money on
happiness," write Dunn and colleagues. "A significant majority thought
personal spending would make them happier and that $20 would make them happier