Christmas Shopping Can Promote Happiness

‘Tis always the season for psychology studies! I found out about this one on a post on Christmas psychology studies by Psyblog. Published in Science back in 2008, this research claims that spending money on other people promotes more happiness that spending money on oneself. Is it really possible to buy ourselves some happiness by giving other people presents?

There is vast research on the effect of money on happiness, and whilst the positive impact of a higher income on happiness is consistently found, the effect is surprisingly weak. Researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada claim that a person’s happiness is increased by pro-social behaviour, for instance spending time with friends, or donating to charity; essentially acts from which other people can benefit. It seems this is the sort of behaviour that can decrease with high disposable income.

Elizabeth Dunn and her colleagues measured the relationship between personal spending (bills, living expenses and gifts for themselves) and pro-social spending (gifts for others and charity donations) with general happiness ratings of 632 Americans. As expected, people with higher incomes rated their happiness as being higher than those with lower incomes. Interestingly, pro-social spending was also associated with higher happiness ratings, whilst there was no relationship between personal spending and happiness; thus, suggesting that happier individuals spent more money on other people than they did on themselves.

Another experiment measured the happiness of 16 employees 1 month before and 6-8 weeks after they received a profit-sharing bonus from their company. Again they allocated the spending of their bonus to the personal and pro-social spending groups. Employees who spent more of their bonus on others rather than on themselves were happier afterwards, and the way the bonus was spent predicted happiness more than its size.

This year’s John Lewis Christmas advert has the right idea.

The effect was seen again in a third experiment where subjects instructed to spend either $5 or $20 on other people or charity were happier than they were before the experiment, compared to those instructed to spend the same amounts on themselves. The amount of money had no relationship with happiness.

It seems that the way in which money is spent can determine the happiness of the spender; this is at least as important as how much people earn, if not more so. According to Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade, life circumstances such as income, gender and religion aren’t as strong measures of happiness as commonly thought. Humans have an incredible ability to get used to circumstances and adapt, therefore, these factors don’t have as big an impact on happiness as “intentional activities” – the things we choose to do and into which we put our efforts. They argue that these are the more likely means of promoting our own happiness. So put some effort into your Christmas shopping and make yourself happier!

References
Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008) Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319, 1687-1688.

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