LONG VALLEY, New Jersey — Scientists have recently unearthed a secret to happiness and it is quite contrary to most people’s instincts. Research has revealed that spending money on others can satisfy basic psychological needs and boost happiness. Known as the “Helper’s High,” making a charitable donation is not only good for your favorite cause: it’s good for you too. So if you are wondering what to do with the $20 in your pocket, scientists would advise you to give it to someone in need.
It is a proven fact that givers are happier than non-givers. According to the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, which evaluated 30,000 American households, people who donated to a charity were 43 percent more likely than non-givers to say that they were “very happy” about their lives. A similar study found that volunteers were 42 percent more likely to be happy than non-volunteers.
These types of giving are not limited to donating to a homeless man on the street or volunteering your time to a local soup kitchen. Happiness can result from less formal acts of giving with other resources in our lives such as our blood, which 15 percent of Americans donate at least once a year. The National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey found that 43 percent of American adults who gave blood two to three times during 2002 reported that they were very happy, while only 29 percent of those who did not give blood reported happiness.
The difference in happiness levels between givers and non-givers is not due to differences in personal characteristics, such as age, income, religion, education, politics, sex or native country. In a new research paper titled, “Prosocial Spending and Happiness,” psychologists Elizabeth Dunn and Lara Aknin, along with Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, report that “the benefits of helping others are evident in givers old and young in countries around the world, and extend to not only subjective well-being, but also objective health.”
These researchers conducted an experiment in 2008 in which participants were given either $5 or $20 to spend by the end of the day; half were instructed to buy something for themselves, and the others were instructed to use the money to help someone else. At the end of the day, people assigned to spend the money on another person reported happier moods throughout the day than people who spent the money on themselves.
The report also referenced a 2012 study by Aknin which provided evidence that even toddlers experience happiness when giving to others. In the experiment, young children under the age of two exhibited more happiness when giving goldfish crackers to a puppet character, rather than receiving the crackers themselves. Aknin further examined happiness data from 136 countries and concluded that there is a “significant relationship between giving and happiness in 120 of them, poor and rich alike.”
“The countless acts of financial generosity that occur around the world every day, from donating money to the Red Cross to helping a friend pay for medication, suggest that generosity is a fundamental feature of human life. It is possible that engaging in generous behavior might produce consistent, positive feelings across diverse cultural contexts, akin to pleasurable feelings associated with other adaptive behaviors such as eating and sexual intercourse,” said the report.
So is the giving and happiness relationship psychologically universal, regardless of age, income or location around the world?
Doctors have found that the surprising conclusion to why charity leads to happiness is because the act of giving affects our brain chemistry. People who give often report feelings of euphoria, inducing endorphins that produce a mild version of sensations from drugs like morphine and heroin (hence the psychological phrase “Helper’s High”).
Studies have also shown that charity lowers stress hormones that cause unhappiness. In a Duke University experiment, seniors were found to have lower levels of stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine in their brains after giving to others.
On a psychological level, Aknin believes that giving money to others is a crucial part of the self-determination theory, which states that human well-being depends on the satisfaction of three basic needs: relatedness, competence and autonomy. People generally garner happiness when they connect with others through prosocial spending, see how their generous actions have made a difference, and feel that their charitable actions are freely chosen.
According to the researchers, these insights can be particularly beneficial to non-profit organizations and charities soliciting donations. “The more money they can maximize the emotional benefits of giving, the more likely the donor will give additional dollars the next time they are asked,” said the report.
With new evidence surfacing, scientists are reconsidering the “selfish gene” and exploring the evolution of altruism, kindness, cooperation and compassion.
This evidence has also led to a virtuous cycle – happiness makes us give more and giving makes us happier. If we can simultaneously feel good about ourselves while helping others, it seems like a pretty good cycle to be trapped in.
– Abby Bauer