The Why Files The Why Files --

 Economic downturn: Can money buy happiness?

Happy News

The happy learner can be a myth. After listening to sad music, children paid more attention to detail compared to children who had heard happy music. Says Simone Schnall of the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, "Happiness indicates that things are going well, which leads to a global, top-down style of information processing. Sadness indicates that something is amiss, triggering detail-orientated, analytical processing."

The power of positive giving

If spending in general is not very conducive to improving happiness, could spending money on another be more effective? Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia studied the issue by giving $5 or $20 to people who were asked to spend the money on themselves or someone else.

It's nice work if you can get it: "We walked up to people on campus, said, 'Here is some money, I want you to spend it by 5 p.m.,'" says Dunn.

That evening, the experimenters asked the recipient how happy they were feeling, and then what they did with the money. Some subjects bought themselves magazines, cups of coffee or a bit of jewelry, Dunn says. Others bought a plant for a friend or a made a donation to charity.

It turned out that spending money on another person produced "quite a substantial difference in happiness," says Dunn.

How come?

The "money-brightens-my-day-when-I-give-it-away" effect could have many causes, Dunn says. "There are various pathways that lead to happiness as result of pro-social spending. It could strengthen our social relationships, which are one of the best predictors of happiness. There is some reason to believe that doing something positive for others just makes us feel good. Spending on others may lead us to take the other's perspective, to feel good about ourselves, to believe we can count on other people in the future."

A woman stoops down to hand a golden blonde teddy bear to a smiling toddler girl with a ponytail
Giving promotes happiness, but research suggests that this donor will get an even bigger boost if she and the child play together with the teddy bear.

Dunn says hanging out together can maximize the benefits of pro-social spending: "If you buy a kid a new toy, it's probably better to play together with the toy."

Pro-social spending could even feed on itself, Dunn adds. "There is correlational evidence that happier people give more to charity, but in our subsequent research, we are finding there might be an upward spiral between happiness and pro-social spending. When people choose to spend more on others, that makes them even happier, which leads them to spend more money on others. There may be a positive feedback loop between happiness and prosocial spending."

 In a tree with clusters of white starlet flowers, a pair of Cardinals appears to kiss
Before mating, the male cardinal feeds his lady a bud from the tree at right. Sure, he expects something in return, but not all gifts emerge from pure altruism.
Healthy people tend to be happy people. Could happy people become healthy people?


Terry Devitt, editor; Nathan Hebert, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2022, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.