OK, it’s official. The research has been done, the experiments completed, and the paper was published in the journal Science last Friday. Money is related to happiness. But not in the way you’d expect. No, fabulously wealthy people aren’t necessarily happier than the rest of us. The happiest people among us are the ones who give their money away.
Not all of it, certainly. And not strictly to charities. But those who give something involving money to others, be it a pocketful of change to the Salvation Army bell-ringer or treating a friend to lunch, are happier than those who buy things for themselves.
Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, is lead author of a study co-authored by master's student Lara Aknin and Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School. The study involved three separate experiments, all involving giving people a certain amount of money and then either directing them how to spend it (on themselves or others), or tracking how they spent it and then measuring their “happiness quotient.” The vast majority of interviewees reported greater happiness if they bought something for someone else rather than themselves.
If you’re so poor that food and shelter are an issue, then money is going to bring you relief, comfort, and surely a degree of happiness that you’re warm and fed. But beyond that, Dunn and her colleagues are positing that happiness doesn’t come from things; it comes from giving.
We see this in our own society. Read People magazine: millionaire celebrities are getting divorced, going to rehab clinics, even attempting to end their lives… these aren’t happy people. The mega-mansions and stable of fancy cars isn’t putting a smile on their faces. And research shows that lottery winners often end up no happier, or even less so, than they were before they hit the jackpot.
“Well, maybe money doesn’t buy happiness, but I’d sure like to try it sometime,” you’re probably thinking. Yeah, we’d all like relief from financial stress: the mortgage or rent, the spiraling grocery and gas and heating oil prices, the never-ending medical bills. But think about it. Ultimately, money isn’t going to take away your cancer. It’s not going to allay the chemo side effects, nor silence the little voice in your head that keeps whispering “Where is it? Is it coming back?” Money can't buy you back your health. Your happiness has to come from another source.
Psychologist Dunn said she wants to investigate whether giving time or volunteering services would boost happiness as much as giving money. Heck, I can save her a lot of time and effort by telling her the answer right now: YES. “Happy giving” doesn’t necessarily have to involve money.
I regularly write checks to charity. Does it make me feel good? Well, more or less. Sending money each month to an orphanage in Venezuela to support a 16-year-old mentally handicapped boy that I’ve been helping out since he was 6 years old, yes, it feels great. Some of the other things I give to don’t feel as personal. But truly, nothing feels as good to me as giving myself—time, hugs, words, a shoulder to cry on— to women struggling with breast cancer.
Want to test the theory, and don’t know where to start? Next time you’re in the waiting room at the oncologist’s, sit down next to someone who’s alone, rather than taking a chair across the room. Smile. See what happens. Even easier, write a SharePost or leave a comment in the “Get Insight from People Like You” section in the bottom right corner of this site’s home page. Studies show that sharing your money makes you happy. My experience shows that sharing your heart has the exact same result.
Published On: March 23, 2008