How much does happiness cost? Not much when you spend it on others.


Don't eat these donuts without friends.

A few weeks ago, while in a foul mood, I found myself admiring the pastries in a coffee shop.  I bought (and I write this so that others may learn from my mistakes) three mini chocolate donuts and a cheese danish.  In other words I was “eating my emotions.”  How did I feel afterwards?  My foul mood had further soured, not only because of my gluttonous behavior, but also by the fact that, well, I work in a happiness lab.  I should know better!

So I sat there thinking about what had just happened (another surefire way to make yourself miserable) and contemplated what I should have done instead.  Then I remembered a simple lesson from a powerful article I read recently:

If you want to be happy, you’re better off spending $5 on a friend than you are $20 on yourself.

In a series of simple experiments, Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues (2008) assigned participants to one of four conditions, giving them envelopes of cash and instructions on how to spend it (Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness). Each envelope contained either $5 or $20 and told participants to spend the cash on themselves or on someone else.  At the end of the day, the researchers contacted the participants to see whose happiness was most affected by their purchase.  Can you guess whose happiness was most increased?

If you are like the college students in the study, you probably guessed that those who spent $20 on themselves were happiest.  Nope!  Participants who spent their cash on others were happier than participants who spent the money on themselves. Even better, there was no difference in spending $5 or $20; the amount spent on others had no impact on happiness.

The researchers did not measure whether participants who spent money on others spent that money in their friend’s presence, but realistically it’s easier to spend money on someone who is with you at the time. Further, it could simply be the act of getting coffee or lunch with a friend – regardless of who pays – that actually makes people happier.  Spending your money on you is by definition selfish, even if you’re out shopping with a friend. So when you spend money on other people there are two benefits: the social act of spending time with another person combined with the altruistic act of doing something nice for another person.

Back to my miserable coffee shop experience.  I would have been better off sharing those pastries with a friend, or forgoing the chocolate donuts and cheese danish altogether and just buying him a cup of coffee (and skipping the unnecessary calories). But you don’t have to be sad or angry to learn from my mistake.  Any old mood will do.  Do yourself (and a friend!) a favor and pay for coffee this afternoon.

At BeyondThePurchase.Org we are researching the connection between people’s spending habitshappiness, and values. The benefit of spending money on others may in part be driven by the fact that spending money on a friend is a social act, and social acts are often experiential purchases. What type of experiential purchases are most appealing to you? To find out first Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase. Then, take our Experiential Preference Scale — we think you will learn a lot about how to spend your money with your friends.

This blog post was written by Ann Harter, a student in the Personality & Well-being Laboratory at San Francisco State University.

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