Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sunday dollars+sense: Money can make you happy...

...if you give it to someone else.

The results are in, and they look pretty conclusive.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and the Harvard Business School have just confirmed it in three ways.

First they surveyed 600 Americans and asked how much they spent on themselves and how much they gave away or spent on other people.

Asking how happy each was they found that personal spending was unrelated to happiness but that giving was.

Then they found 16 workers who were about to receive a bonus. A few weeks before and a few weeks after the bonus they asked each about their happiness and also about what each had done with bonus.

Guess what? The more of his or her bonus the worker gave away the happier her or she felt. Indeed that turned out to be a better predictor of happiness than how big the bonus actually was.

And then they turned their attention to their students...

They tested 46 of them for happiness in the morning and then gave them envelopes of money with instructions on how to spend it.

They phoned them at night to test how their happiness had changed.

Some found $5 in their envelopes, some $20. Some has been asked to spend it on themselves, some on other people.

Again, those who spend it on other people felt the best. Sometimes they bought things for friends, sometimes they gave it to charities – it didn’t seem to matter.

And nor did it matter how much money they were given. Getting $5 boosted a student’s happiness just as much as getting $20 did - so long as it was given away.

The results were clear. But something puzzled Elizabeth Dunn and her team of researchers.

If giving money away really made people happier, why did they do so little of it?

Even $5 a day could make a big difference.

The answer turned out to be “ignorance”.

They described their envelope experiment to a new set of students and asked them to guess what kind of envelope and what kind of behaviour would make them the happiest.

The students were “doubly wrong”. They thought that those given the most money would be made the happiest, as would those who kept it rather than gave it away would be the happiest.

Most of us might be like the students. We won’t do something that will make us happy because we don’t believe that it will.

Or we didn’t.

Now you know.

Reference: Dunn, E.W., Aknin, L., & Norton, M. I. (2008).
Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319, 1687-1688.