If you want to be happier, spend more money on others

A new research paper written by psychologists Elizabeth Dunn and Lara Aknin, along with Michael Norton of Harvard Business School shows that there’s a clear and simple way to be more happy in life – spending more money on others.

The notion of generosity has been greatly debated among scientists lately – and it’s not just psychologists that are chipping in – geneticists and anthropologists are also hot on the subject. In 2007, Jerusalem researchers published a challenging paper which claimed that generosity might be, at least in part, genetic. Three years later, a joint team of geneticists and a psychologist from Bonn University found a ‘generosity gene‘ – showing that people who carry the gene are much more likely to be generous than those without it. Since then, more and more papers were published on generosity – people wanted to see if it is a natural or developed trait, and perhaps more importantly, if it is somehow important for happiness and success. While there is still no consensus around, it seems safe to say that there is a strong underlying connection between generosity and happiness.


photo credit: OllieD

Now, writing in the Journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, the Harvard researchers 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.” According to their results, this stands for people of all ages and statuses, race and culture.

They first talked about one of their previous studies, in which participants were given either $5 or $20 to buy something for themselves or for somebody else. Those who bought stuff for other people reported significantly higher moods and feeling better throughout the day.

“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 pointed to another study, which showed that even toddlers exhibit more happiness when sharing: babies who gave away goldfish crackers to a puppet character were more happy compared to when they received the snacks themselves.

So how can this be explained?

Apparently, the answer lies in the so-called self-determination theory. Among other things, this states that human well-being depends upon the satisfaction of three basic needs: relatedness, competence, and autonomy. In some cases, generosity  can fulfill all three: you feel more close and related to someone when you help them out, it gives you a sense of competence, as well as a sense of autonomy – the fact that you’re able to help.

While not groundbreaking, this study puts even more substance in the link between generosity and happiness. As a matter of fact, researchers believe that charities and other such organizations can use this to their benefit – the more they maximize the emotional benefits of giving money to them, the more people would donate. In a strange and counter intuitive way… you’re basically buying happiness.

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