Can money buy you happiness?
According to a growing body of evidence, it seems that it can. But what makes us really happy is not buying ourselves the latest iPhone, but splashing our cash on other people. In a study published last week looking at the link between generosity and happiness, researchers from Zurich University divided 50 participants into two groups and asked them to publicly pledge how they would spend a monthly endowment. One group was asked to spend 25 Swiss francs a week on gifts or outings for other people, and the second group was asked to spend it on themselves. Levels of happiness were measured on a subjective scale before and after the pledges. Those in the first group who pledged generously boosted their happiness more than the group who planned to buy themselves treats.
Participants then underwent an MRI scan to see which bits of the brain were most active during generous acts. During the scan, participants were asked to work out how they would like to spend money on a person of their choice. Some of the choices involved participants having to pay extra out of their own pocket to give a gift. For example, they were told they would have to pay 20 francs in order for the recipient of their generosity to get 15 francs. There is a part of the brain – the temporo-parietal junction – that neuroscientists say is associated with generosity, as well as one linked with happiness – the ventral striatum. When people made generous decisions in this study, both areas of the brain showed increased activity. The researchers conclude that their findings have important implications for us all.
It is human nature, the evidence shows, to be generous, although, when asked in surveys, we assume that self-interest is a stronger emotion. But, it turns out, such self-interest doesn’t make us nearly as happy as giving to others. Studies in which people have been given envelopes of money to spend show that those who spent a proportion of it on a gift, or gave some to charity, felt happier than those who spent it on a present for themselves or a bill they needed to pay. A study of young children found that even toddlers felt happier giving rather than getting treats. Other studies show that volunteering increases happiness.
Research looking at survey data from 136 countries found that spending on others has a “consistent, causal impact on happiness”. This was true across a range of cultures and economies. The best news is that you don’t have to give much to feel the benefits. And it is morally fine to give only because it makes you happier.