To Boost Your Own Happiness, Buy Your Dog a Gift

It could make you happier than buying one for yourself.

Posted Mar 18, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills

  • Spending money on other people, research suggests, may often provide more of a happiness boost than spending the same amount on one's self.
  • Researchers compared the effect of spending $5 on one's self or another person to that of spending it on one's dog.
  • Those who gave a gift to their dog reported greater happiness afterward, on average, than did those who had used the money differently.

"Can money buy happiness?" This is one of the most commonly heard questions in general psychology. There has been a lot of research that has examined the effect of income on happiness; however, over the last decade, the evidence has begun to show that how people spend their money may be at least as important as how much money they earn.

Sam Lion/Pexels
Source: Sam Lion/Pexels

In a series of studies by Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia and her colleagues, researchers have made the unexpected finding that spending money on other people (technically referred to as prosocial spending) may have a more positive impact on happiness than spending money on oneself. If the target of such gifts is someone close to the giver (like a family member), the boost in happiness seem to be highest. Given the fact that so many people consider their dogs to be part of their family, a team of researchers headed by Michael White of the Columbia Business School at Columbia University wondered if a similar increase in happiness would occur if a person bought a gift for their dog rather than for themselves.

Exploring the Effect of Giving Gifts to Pets on Happiness

To test this idea, the research team conducted two experiments. In the first, 159 pet owners were randomly assigned to recall a time they spent money on one of three possible targets: themselves, their pet, or another person. The amount of money was modest (around $5).

When recalling spending on themselves, participants typically remembered buying sweets, snacks, and drinks. When recalling an instance where they spent the money on their pet, participants typically remembered buying them new toys, treats, or outfits. When recalling spending on items for other people, the participants typically remembered buying small gifts and food items for friends or family.

Just after they recalled their spending behavior, and while the imagery was still vivid, the participants answered questions to determine how happy they were at that moment.

The results of this experiment were much the way that the researchers had predicted in that people felt happiest when recalling spending money on their dog.

The research team was concerned that simply asking people to recall spending money might be a bit too distant from the actual behavior of spending money, so they conducted a second study in the field. This involved recruiting 188 pet owners. Each was given an envelope that contained $5 and specific spending instructions. Each participant was randomly assigned to spend the money on themselves, their pet, or someone else before 8 p.m. that night. Participants were emailed a survey to complete after they finished the spending task.

When spending the money on themselves, the participants typically bought food items. When spending money on their pets, the participants typically bought new toys or treats. When spending the money on someone else, participants typically made donations or bought gift cards, sweets, or drinks for them. Two items were used to assess the happiness of the participants in the follow-up email.

Again, as predicted, the researchers found that participants who spent money on their pets reported feeling happier than those who spent money on themselves. People who spent money on their pets were also happier than those who spent money on someone else.

The research team found that simply spending the money was not enough. When they asked participants whether they had already given the gift to the person or dog, it turns out that those who had actually given the gift to their pet felt the happiest.

Based on this data, it appears that if you're feeling a bit down and out, you might just gain a little increment in your happiness by spending a couple of dollars to buy your dog a treat or a new toy.

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References

Elizabeth W. Dunn, Lara B. Aknin, Michael I. Norton (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1150952

Michael W. White, Nazia Khan, Jennifer S. Deren, Jessica J. Sim & Elizabeth A. Majka (2021): Give a dog a bone: Spending money on pets promotes happiness. The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2021.1897871