Want to be happier? Give more to others

Alice G. Walton | Apr 17, 2019

There’s scientific evidence, it turns out, to back up centuries-old religious teachings that it’s better to give than to receive. Chicago Booth’s Ed O’Brien and Northwestern PhD candidate Samantha Kassirer find that giving to others might make you happier in the long run and has staying power, whereas the joy of receiving fades quickly.

In an experiment, the researchers gave college students $5 for five days in a row and told them to spend it the same way each day. Half of the students were instructed to spend the money on themselves, say by buying a coffee daily. The other half were told to spend the money on others, for example by donating to a single charity or leaving a tip in the same coffee shop each day. Every night, the participants completed a survey in which they reported how they felt overall that day. 

The happiness level of the students who spent money on themselves declined over the five days, the researchers find. But for those who donated the money, their happiness level on the fifth day was similarly high as on the first.

In another experiment, participants carried out 10 online word-search tasks, for each of which they were paid 5 cents. Half the group had to donate their total, 50-cent reward to the charity of their choice, and the other half had to keep the money. After each task, the participants reported their feelings about the outcome—how elated, joyful, or happy they felt. 

Once again, the two groups reacted differently. The happiness of the participants who donated money faded a bit over the 10 tasks, but it did so more slowly than for those who kept their earnings. O’Brien and Kassirer believe that the difference could only be explained by the choice of giving versus receiving.

They suggest a couple of explanations for the participants’ reactions. Giving to others may help people feel socially connected, or perhaps it helps people look good and uphold a reputation for prosocial, or communally focused, actions.

Or the phenomenon may have to do with someone’s vantage point, the researchers suggest. When we receive money or goods repeatedly, it’s easy to compare the results and become acclimated to them. In fact, research over several decades has explored “hedonic adaptation,” a theory of happiness that suggests people quickly become accustomed to good things and return to their original happiness level. 

But giving seems to work differently, suggest O’Brien and Kassirer. When people give, the endpoint isn’t always apparent, therefore comparison—and acclimation—aren’t as likely. As they write, “The happiness we get from giving appears to sustain itself.”