Experiments in Philosophy

The impact of psychological research on life's big questions.

Does Donating Money Make Us Happy?

Wanna be happy? Be "altruistic" with your money.

As my second official post, I'll point our readers to a finding that recently appeared in Science. Elizabeth Dunn (UBC) and her colleagues demonstrated that giving money to others makes us more happy overall than using that money for ourselves.

While not emphasized in their paper, I think these findings raise an intriguing question that turns out to have a deep history in philosophy and in psychology: Do we ever act in a truly altruistic fashion? Many social scientists answer in the negative. For them, the only plausible motivation for any human action is self-interest. Now, if I take the Dunn et al. findings at face value, and decide that I'm going to start donating to charity solely because it will improve my happiness, I'm acting selfishly am I not? So is it possible that the only reason we do things that appear altruistic on the surface is for the happiness they bring us? That helping is just one among many things we can do to feel good (eat good food, have sex, go to a movie), and that's why we do it? (This question directly led to one of the most fruitful debates in social psychology--between those who think that we sometimes act solely out of concern for others and those who think we only help others for the hedonic rewards it provides). I'll let others chime in on the possibility of true altruism... 

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David Pizarro is an assistant professor at Cornell University, where he conducts research on moral judgment and emotion in the department of psychology.

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