Repeated Giving Feels Good

When you give repeatedly to others, the joy doesn't diminish much over time.

Posted Mar 21, 2019

Nick Youngson--Creative Commons 3.0
Source: Nick Youngson--Creative Commons 3.0

For most experiences in life, no matter how good it makes you feel the first time it happens, it feels less good the more you experience it. A great restaurant may be a peak experience the first time you eat there, but bring you less joy each time you go there again. You may love hearing a particular song the first time it plays, but it won’t be as uplifting the 50th time as it was the first.

But, what happens with the joy you get from doing something for someone else? Studies also suggest that giving a gift, leaving a nice tip at a restaurant, or donating to charity also boosts your mood. If you keep giving the same thing, does that eventually lose its appeal as well?

This question was explored in a paper in the February 2019 issue of Psychological Science by Ed O’Brien and Samantha Kassirer.

In one study, they gave each participant five $5 bills in separate envelopes. One group of participants was told to spend $5 a day on consecutive days. They were supposed to treat themselves to something nice (like a drink at a coffee shop). The only restriction was that whatever they chose on the first day, they had to make the same purchase for themselves each day.

The other group was told to spend the $5 on someone else (either a particular individual or a donation to a charity). Again, they had to do the same thing each day.

At the end of each day, the participants were asked what they spent the money on. They also rated how they felt overall that day. Finally, they rated how spending the money made them feel.

Consistent with the idea that people adapt to repeated experiences, their happiness with the gift they got themselves went down each day. Interestingly, when people spent the money on other people, their initial happiness with the gift was the same as when they spent the money on themselves. It did not decline significantly over the five days of the study.

A second study replicated this effect in a slightly different way. Using a larger sample, participants played 10 rounds of a game. If they succeeded in a given round (and participants typically succeeded), they won 5 cents. Similar to the previous study, half of the participants won the money for themselves. The other half won it for a charity they selected from a list. After each round, participants also rated how good winning made them feel.

The results were similar to those of the first study. In the first round, happiness with winning was about the same for the participants who won for themselves or who won for the charity. Over the course of the study, happiness with winning went down, but it went down much more substantially for people who won money for themselves than for people who won money for charity.

These results suggest that giving to others influences happiness in a different way than getting something does. When you get something, you tend to focus on the actual thing you receive. Over time, things get less exciting. This is the basis of the hedonic treadmill in which we gradually adapt to new things and then want something new.

In contrast, giving reinforces our connection to other people. It creates an experience rather than a thing. The experience of social connection remains reinforcing for a long time. That is one reason why expressing gratitude to others is such a powerful way of boosting your mood. It also suggests that the next time your mood needs a little lift, consider doing something for another person.

References

O'Brien, E. & Kassirer, S. (2019). People are slow to adapt to the warm glow of giving. Psychological Science, 30(2), 193-204.