Sunday, February 5, 2012

Does giving make you happy?

Psychology has traditionally focused on mental illness and other problems.  The field of positive psychology focuses on how to be healthier and happier.

One example is the study "Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness". It looks at how personal spending (paying bills or buying things for ourselves) and prosocial spending (donations or gifts for others) affect us differently.  The findings:
  • People with higher prosocial spending report being happier than those with low prosocial spending. The amount of personal spending, on the other hand, has no effect on happiness. Of course, this could just mean happy people are more generous, or they're happy and generous because they're rich.  But the second half of the study addresses that. 
  • Researchers asked people to rate their happiness in the morning, then gave them either $5 or $20 and told them to spend it by 5 pm.  Half the participants were told to spend the money on themselves and the other half were told to use the money for a donation or gift.  When the researchers called participants that evening, the people assigned to prosocial spending reported greater happiness.1
  • Participants predicted that personal spending would be more enjoyable than prosocial spending, and that $20 would make them them happier than $5.  They were wrong on both counts - they were happier after prosocial spending, and the amount didn't matter for either kind of spending.
For me, the takeaway points are:
  • Our intuitions about what will make us happy are sometimes wrong.
  • If a transaction (spending or giving) makes us happy, but a larger amount doesn't make us happier, we should go for smaller transactions.  In my experience, this is true - I like buying things, but buying a pastry or a few flowers makes me as happy as a larger purchase.  And I enjoy two small helpings of dinner more than a single large one.
  • Giving $5 is not the same as giving $5,000.  And it may be more fun to give researchers' money than your own.  Does the pleasurable effect still apply?  Maybe.  I know I get pleasure out of giving large amounts, but probably not as much as spending them.
  • It's most efficient to give large amounts every year or so, so that the charities don't have to process a lot of small donations.  But it's probably more enjoyable to donate small amounts often.
1. Someone's probably going to ask, "What's the effect size on that?" and the answer is "[F1,41 = 4.39, P < 0.04, effect size estimate (ŋp2) = 0.10]". Unfortunately, I have no idea what this means. If you know, do tell.


  1. About effect size: Wikipedia says [1]: "0.0099 constitutes a small effect, 0.0588 a medium effect and 0.1379 a large effect", so it looks like 0.10 is "medium".


  2. Also, I only skimmed through the original article, but they seem to add 'buying something for someone else' and 'donating to charity' together. So it's not clear which of the two is having a higher impact on happiness. Maybe buying a beer to their friends in a bar makes people more happy than buying an insecticide-treated bed nets to a kid in sub-Saharan Africa. Are you aware of studies looking specifically into giving to charity as opposed to just giving in general?

  3. Orlando,
    I wasn't able to find any studies on donating specifically rather than the donating/gifting mix. That would be good to know.