Good news, holiday shoppers: the time and money you’ve spent buying or making gifts for everyone on your list can actually be good for your mental health.
Research forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science finds that people experience joy for a longer period of time after giving someone something than they do after getting something.
Previous studies have found that customer satisfaction from material purchases decreases rather quickly; that’s why you have to upgrade to yet another new iPhone each year, or a kid loses interest in a new toy within days (if not hours.) This is known in academia as “hedonic adaptation” — the happiness we get from a particular event or activity decreases each time we experience it, which encourages us to try new things and acquire new resources instead of settling for the same-old same-old every day.
So in two new studies, psychology researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management looked into what would sustain happiness over time instead. And it turns out that it feels much better to give than it does to receive.
The first experiment gave 96 university students $5 every day for five days, and had half of the participants spend the money on themselves every day, while the other half had to spend it on someone else, such as making an online donation to the same charity every day, or leaving the money in a tip jar at the same cafe each morning. The subjects shared their spending experiences and reflected on their overall happiness at the end of each day. And while both groups started off with similar levels of self-reported happiness, those who spent the cash on themselves reported a steady decline in happiness over those five days — but the joy people felt in giving that $5 was just as strong on day five as it was on day one.
In a second, online experiment, 502 people played 10 rounds of a word puzzle game, and won five cents per round, which they either kept or donated to a charity of their choice. After each round, the participants shared the degree to which winning had made them feel good. And once more, those who gave their winnings away stayed happier longer, while those who kept their winnings saw their good feelings fade away.
“If you want to sustain happiness over time, past research tells us that we need to take a break from what we’re currently consuming and experience something new. (But) our research reveals that the kind of thing may matter more than assumed: Repeated giving, even in identical ways to identical others, may continue to feel relatively fresh and relatively pleasurable the more that we do it,” wrote psychology researcher Ed O’Brien from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
The researchers couldn’t definitely conclude just why giving sustains those good feels for so long. While they did further analyses to rule out alternative explanations, such as the possibility that those who gave money to others had to think more about what to give, “none of them could explain our results; there were very few incidental differences between ‘get’ and ‘give’ conditions,” said O’Brien, “and the key difference in happiness remained unchanged when controlling for these other variables in the analyses.”
They suggest that getting something — whether a gift or a salary — can be easily compared what someone else gets, which can lead to dissatisfaction with what we have. In comparison, a kind gesture such as donating to charity often draws less focus on comparison, and instead lets you experience the act of giving as a unique, happiness-inducing event. Plus, science suggests that giving to others reinforces our sense of social connection and belonging, which always feels good.
In 2008, a Harvard Business School professor asked 16 Boston employees what their level of happiness was a month before they received their year-end bonus; the bonuses were different, but averaged around $5,000. The workers were then asked about their happiness after getting the extra cash, as well as how they spent the money. And those who spent the bonus on others reported a higher level of happiness than those who spent it on themselves — and the size of the bonus appeared to have no influence on a person’s happiness. It was giving it that mattered.
There’s physical health benefits, as well. A 2006 study from the National Institutes of Health revealed that giving to charity activates a region of the brain associated with pleasure and connection — producing a euphoric “helper’s high.” And a recent study from Unitedhealthcare and VolunteerMatch found that volunteering for just 2.5 hours a week can boost your health, as 75% of 2,705 volunteers said pitching in made them feel “physically healthier,” and more than one-third found it helped them to better manage their chronic illnesses, compared those who hadn’t volunteered in the past year.
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