When you receive a raise, or get an unexpected bonus or just get a currency bill lying on the road, it makes you happy. However, what next? What should you do with this money that would actually make you happier (we are talking about being happier not wealthier). One branch of social psychology that tries to study ‘other-focused’ psychological processes has tried to address this issue. In a very interesting study published in Science magazine in 2008, carried out by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin (University of British Columbia) and Michael Norton (Harvard), relationship between spending money and happiness was explored. Researchers used three different methods, (survey, natural experiment and a lab experiment) to see the relationship between happiness and personal spending (spending on bills and gifts for self), pro-social spending (donations, charity and gifts for others). Consistently in all studies pro-social spending emerged as a significant factor for happiness. People who on an average spent more money on charity registered a higher degree of happiness irrespective of their level of income or whether gain was windfall or normal. Moreover, people who spent additional income (a profit-sharing bonus in the natural experiment) on others recorded a higher increase in happiness than those who spent money on themselves. Pro-social concern might not only be a key to happiness but as shown by Adam Grant (Wharton) and J. Berry (UNC), it could also be a key to creativity and innovation.
But when it comes to looking for happiness, why do we look for answers which are more self-centered? Dunn and her colleagues, supplemented their study by doing a survey with some 109 university students. They asked them through a questionnaire what would make them happier. Majority thought that more money would make them happier and that spending on self would make them happier than spending on others. There lies the answer. We all assume that spending on ourselves would make us happy and happiness eludes us. The real answer to our quest for happiness actually lies in happiness of others. That’s why, being nice to others, might just make us happier.
Dunn EW, Aknin LB, & Norton MI (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science (New York, N.Y.), 319 (5870), 1687-8 PMID: 18356530
Grant, A., & Berry, J. (2011). The Necessity of Others is The Mother of Invention: Intrinsic and Prosocial Motivations, Perspective Taking, and Creativity Academy of Management Journal, 54 (1), 73-96 DOI: 10.5465/AMJ.2011.59215085