“Happiness doesn’t result from what we get, but from what we give.” ― Ben Carson
Research has shown that having more money can boost happiness levels in people.
Research has also shown that having a lot more money beyond a certain preset limit does not have a huge impact on levels of happiness.
Studies have pointed to this as “hedonic adaptation.” We adapt fast and get over the supposed happiness from material acquisition.
Perhaps this explains why having a lot more wealth more does not always amount to being happier.
A recent study has also shown that how you spend your money also matters for your levels of happiness.
The research now shows that people who spend money on others report more happiness. This warm glow of giving works even for toddlers.
“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.” ― Mother Teresa
The study is “Prosocial Spending and Happiness: Using Money to Benefit Others Pays Off ” by Elizabeth W. Dunn, Lara B. Aknin, and Michael I. Norton.
It was published in 2014 in the Current Directions in Psychological Science.
In a past study, the authors gave people in a university campus $5 or $20 to spend by the end of the day. They asked half of them to spend it on themselves and the other half to spend it on others.
People asked to spend the money on others, the prosocial spenders, reported more happier moods through the day. Personal spenders reported less happy moods through the day.
An interesting outcome of that study was that it did not matter if people got 5 or 20 dollars to spend.
Also, people were wrong in predicting what would bring happiness in others.
Participants believed that more money and spending it on themselves would make people happier.
This is interesting since many believe that spending a lot of money on themselves gives more personal satisfaction and happiness. This is wrong on both counts and may lead to wrong spending choices as a measure to enhance happiness.
In a study in 2013, the authors extended the study into 136 countries to determine the universality of the principle. They found that it did not matter if the country was poor or rich and the results were similar.
In most countries, there was a significant and positive relationship between prosocial spending and the “warm glow” of happiness.
One experiment done in Canada and South Africa had participants spend money on a chocolate filled goody bag.
Half of the participants received the goody bag and the other half had the opportunity to gift it to a sick child in a local hospital.
Regardless of economic status, people who gifted and prosocially spend the money on others reported happier moods.
The authors have shown in a study that even toddlers become happier when they give to others. In the study, toddlers just under two got treats such as goldfish crackers.
The toddlers then saw a puppet or a stuffed toy and gave either one of their treats to it or an extra treat from the experimenter.
The puppet then enthusiastically took and pretended to eat the treat given by the child.
Researchers coded children’s facial expressions for happiness. Children were happier when they gave a treat to the puppet. They were most happy when then gave the puppet their own treat as opposed to giving the puppet an extra treat from the experimenter.
The authors say:
“Taken together, this research showed that adults around the world and even young children experience emotional benefits from using their resources to help others, which suggests that humans may have a deep-seated proclivity to find giving rewarding.”
The authors point out that prosocial spending does not always enhance happiness. But it can be effective under certain conditions and circumstances.
These conditions are Relatedness, competence and autonomy.
The authors say:
“Helping others may be most emotionally rewarding when it satisfies the fundamental need for social connection.”
How can relatedness be achieved?
- The giving provides a means to connect with others in a social context.
- It fulfills a need for belonging.
- Close relationships can fulfill relatedness.
Example: people who received a $10 Starbucks gift card were happier by giving it to a friend but only if they went out to coffee with them. People were happier when they gave to people that they had close relationships with when compared to acquaintances.
The authors say:
“Prosocial spending is most likely to satisfy the need for competence if people can see how their generous actions have made a difference. Thus, individuals may experience a bigger happiness boost from giving to charities that make it easy to see the positive impact of donations.”
For competence to be met:
- A clear, concise and concrete plan of action of the usage of your monetary spending and your effort should be visible.
- How your money will be useful to others and not just in a general fund.
Example: UNICEF vs. Spread The Net. Spread the net provides a more specific and concrete use such as for every $10, a bed net will be given to a child to prevent malaria. This causes more happiness vs. donating for a general cause such as one for UNICEF.
The authors say:
“Because the need for autonomy is satisfied when people feel that their actions are freely chosen, the emotional benefits of prosocial spending should be stronger when people have a choice about whether to give.”
Effects of autonomy:
- People are happier if they have a choice to give more money and also the autonomy of how much to give
- Brain scans of people show reward centers light up when they freely donate to a charity vs. when they are required to donate.
Benefits of prosocial spending:
- Activation of reward areas of brain.
- Less stress experienced and less stress hormone cortisol released while giving compared to keeping for the self.
- Better health of adults who gave money and other resources to others perhaps through enhanced connection.
- Possible better emotional and physical vitality as suggested by studies
In conclusion: The holidays have come and gone but the season of giving and assisting is still new! Science shows that spending money and resources on others has a measurable enhancement on happy moods.
If you cannot spare money, you can still consider assisting others with your skills. There are resources that you may have in plenty that others lack.
Perhaps you may want to take a meal over to a friend who is going through a difficult time. In other words, giving never goes out of fashion!
“For it is in giving that we receive.” ― St. Francis of Assisi