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Buying for Others Makes Us Happier Than Buying for Ourselves

Being generous with money is a great way to boost your psychological well-being.

Freestocks / Unsplash
Source: Freestocks / Unsplash

A new study appearing in the Journal of Positive Psychology offers another compelling reason why spending money on others brings us more happiness than spending money on ourselves.

“Previous studies show that spending money on others makes people happier than spending it on themselves,” state the authors of the research, led by Hajdi Moche of Linkoping University in Sweden. “[We] tested and extended this idea by examining the role of active versus passive choice and default choices. Here, 788 participants played and won money in a game, from which some of the earnings could be donated to charity. The results showed that people who donated money were happier than people who kept the money for themselves and that active choices elicited significantly more negative [emotions] than passive choices.”

People were happier when they opted for prosocial rather than personal spending, but they were most happy when this decision was made for them; presumably because this freed them from experiencing uncertainty or regret about the decision they made.

There is one caveat, however. The researchers found that opting out of a default option where people kept the money for themselves and into a donation option resulted in the greatest happiness boost. While it is true that passive spending decisions are generally accompanied by higher levels of happiness, there is a special case where actively opting into a prosocial spending option yields the greatest happiness boost of all.

The study also reaffirms the benefits of anonymous giving. Another recent experiment found that putting coins in someone else’s parking meter resulted in a greater happiness boost than feeding one’s own meter, even when the people had no idea who they were helping.

“This is consistent with the notion of ‘impure altruism’, meaning that people are willing to forego personal economic benefits to help other individuals — even anonymous ones,” say the researchers. “This is also consistent with findings from neuroscience suggesting that helping others is personally rewarding and that the same reward centers in the brain are activated when a person receives a personal reward as when a person acts to benefit others.”

Other examples of altruistic behavior have nothing to do with money. For instance, one recent study found that people who engage in heroic acts such as running into a burning house to ave a person in danger don’t necessarily perceive themselves as heroes. Instead, they are more likely to feel like they were simply doing what was right or the same thing others would have done in the situation.

“Whereas observers believe that acting heroically involves extreme personal burden, actors view their personal burden as relatively unimportant,” says Nadav Klein, the lead author of the research. “Being a hero is a distinctly less positive experience than observing one.”

Returning to the long-studied relationship between money, spending, and happiness, scientists are still working out all of the ways money influences our psychological well-being. For instance, other research has shown:

  • The ability to spend more money increases well-being more than the ability to earn more of it.
  • Higher income is related to people’s overall life satisfaction but not to moment-to-moment happiness.
  • People who earn more money report experiencing happiness more frequently than those with lower incomes, but the intensity of the happiness feelings does not differ between high and low earners.

The authors conclude: “This study adds to a growing body of research showing that prosocial spending makes people happier than personal spending. We add to this literature by showing that the choice itself has hedonic consequences.”

References

Hajdi Moche & Daniel Västfjäll (2021) To give or to take money? The effects of choice on prosocial spending and happiness, The Journal of Positive Psychology

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