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Research: Can Money Buy Happiness?

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Research: Can Money Buy Happiness?

In his quarterly column, Francis J. Flynn looks at research that examines how to spend your way to a more satisfying life.
A boy holding a toy train
A boy looks at a toy train he received during an annual gift-giving event on Christmas Eve 2011. | Reuters/Jose Luis Gonzalez

What inspires people to act selflessly, help others, and make personal sacrifices? Each quarter, this column features one piece of scholarly research that provides insight on what motivates people to engage in what psychologists call "prosocial behavior" — things like making charitable contributions, buying gifts, volunteering one‘s time, and so forth. In short, it looks at the work of some of our finest researchers on what spurs people to do something on behalf of someone else.

In this column I explore the idea that many of the ways we spend money are prosocial acts — and prosocial expenditures may, in fact, make us happier than personal expenditures. Authors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton discuss evidence for this in their new book, Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. These behavioral scientists show that you can get more out of your money by following several principles — like spending money on others rather than yourself. Moreover, they demonstrate that these principles can be used not only by individuals, but also by companies seeking to create happier employees and more satisfying products.

Investing

According to Dunn and Norton, recent research on happiness suggests that the most satisfying way of using money is to invest in others. This can take a seemingly limitless variety of forms, from donating to a charity that helps strangers in a faraway country to buying lunch for a friend.

Witness Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, two of the wealthiest people in the world. On a March day in 2010, they sat in a diner in Carter Lake, Iowa, and hatched a scheme. They would ask America‘s billionaires to pledge the majority of their wealth to charity. Buffet decided to donate 99 percent of his, saying, "I couldn‘t be happier with that decision."

And what about the rest of us? Dunn and Norton show how we all might learn from that example, regardless of the size of our bank accounts. Research demonstrating that people derive more satisfaction spending money on others than they do spending it on themselves spans poor and rich countries alike, as well as income levels. The authors show how this phenomenon extends over an extraordinary range of circumstances, from a Canadian college student purchasing a scarf for her mother to a Ugandan woman buying lifesaving malaria medication for a friend. Indeed, the benefits of giving emerge among children before the age of two.

Investing in others can make individuals feel healthier and wealthier, even if it means making yourself a little poorer to reap these benefits. One study shows that giving as little as $1 away can cause you to feel more flush.

Investing in others can make you feel healthier and wealthier, even if it means making yourself a little poorer.

Dunn and Norton further discuss how businesses such as PepsiCo and Google and nonprofits such as DonorsChoose.org are harnessing these benefits by encouraging donors, customers, and employees to invest in others. When Pepsi punted advertising at the 2010 Superbowl and diverted funds to supporting grants that would allow people to "refresh" their communities, for example, more public votes were cast for projects than had been cast in the 2008 election. Pepsi got buzz, and the company‘s in-house competition also offering a seed grant boosted employee morale.

Could this altruistic happiness principle be applied to one of our most disputed spheres — paying taxes? As it turns out, countries with more equal distributions of income also tend to be happier. And people in countries with more progressive taxation (such as Sweden and Japan) are more content than those in countries where taxes are less progressive (such as Italy and Singapore). One study indicated that people would be happier about paying taxes if they had more choice as to where their money went. Dunn and Norton thus suggest that if taxes were made to feel more like charitable contributions, people might be less resentful having to pay them.

The researchers persuasively suggest that the proclivity to derive joy from investing in others may well be just a fundamental component of human nature. Thus the typical ratio we all tend to fall into of spending on self versus others — ten to one — may need a shift. Giving generously to charities, friends, and coworkers — and even your country — may well be a productive means of increasing well-being and improving our lives.

Research selected by Francis Flynn, Paul E. Holden Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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