Science Speaks: How Give Better will make you happier

Published by Selwyn on

The Science of Money: why Give Better will make you happier?

If I won the lotto I would build a fort, completely made of money, and hide in it.


Actually, scratch that. Here’s a better idea:


I would fill a big bathtub with money and get in the tub while smoking a big fat cigar and sipping a glass of champagne. Then I’d have a picture taken and dozens of 8×10 glossies made. Anyone begging for money or trying to extort from me would receive a copy of the picture and nothing else.

Happily, these are not my words — and as you’ll see, I use that word advisedly. Because we all want to be happy, right? Yet research provocatively suggests we are not necessarily very good at making decisions with our money in a way that promotes our own happinessIt prompts a searching question, Am I getting the biggest happiness bang for my buck?


Happy Money


Now let me assuage your curiosity: the quotes with when I began are comments posted below a 2011 CNN story entitled, “Winning the lottery: does it guarantee happiness”. The comments are no longer accessible, but they are recorded in the book, “Happy Money: the New Science on Smarter Spending by Dr Elizabeth Dunn and Dr Michael Norton. 

The authors — one a “rising star” of academia; the other a Harvard professor and one of Wired magazine’s “50 People who will change the world” — are focussed on hard data, not speculation or ideology. And that data, they advise, demonstrates that the would-be lotto winners are running in exactly the opposite direction to their own well-being. Those self-appointed pundits fantasise about buying more stuff (think forts and champagne) to enjoy alone: they hide and bunker down, throwing missiles from a distance to keep intruders at bay. If I’m honest, I recognise that tendency in myself! 

Yet Professors Dunn and Norton prescribe something quite different: come out of hiding and move towards other people. Invite your friends into the fort and sip champagne with your friend; or better still, give the champagne away.


Invest in Others, Science Says


The professors have five spending principles to offer, and here I will focus on but the last of them: Invest in Others. Because they’re professors and all, I should let them have the first word:

Spending money on others can increase your happiness even more than spending your cash on yourself, but you have to be willing to make yourself a little poorest to reap these benefits”.

The book surveys a range of studies to validate this striking conclusion. In one study, participants given a $5 note in an envelope were measurably happy when instructed to spend the money on others, compared with another group told to spend it on themselves. Remarkably, this maxim seems to apply as much in impoverished communities as in affluent ones. Whether it’s a Canadian using loose change to buy a new scarf for her mum, or a young Ugandan woman paying the medical bills of her friend’s son ailing with Malaria, generosity brings a smile to at least two faces. Indeed, in one significant Gallup world poll involving 136 countries:

“ … donating to charity had a similar relationship to happiness as doubling household income”. 

Yet another study is just too cute for words. As Dr Dunn explores in her Ted Talk, it turns out even toddles exhibit joy from giving — yes, even your toddler. Yes, even in the dark depths of the ‘terrible twos’. You can watch the TedTalk here.

But wait, it gets even better: “Giving your money away can make you physically healthier, and even make you feel financially wealthier”. At this point, it’s worth emphasising that these two academics are hardly alone in their findings. Take, for instance, the unabashed and unambiguous conclusion of Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson’s tour de force, The Paradox of Generosity.

“Generosity is paradoxical. Those who give, receive back in turn. By spending on ourselves for others’ well being, we enhance our own. In letting go of some of what we own, we better secure our own lives. By giving ourselves away, we ourselves move towards greater flourishing. This is not only a philosophical or religious teaching. It is a sociological fact”.

Give Better

Give Better — a movement of kiwis learning to give more, save more, and savour the moment — is founded on this scientific principle: at least sometimes, it’s happier to give than to get. We don’t force that on anyone as some kind of heavy-handed moral maxim. No: Give Better is an invitation; and a straightforward one at that. Here’s how it works: 

Like Dr Dunn and Dr Norton, we care about your happiness. And as a community, we are is discovering that the Give Better journey works: it truly is better for you and for the world.


True to the scientific method, we’re saying: Why not put this to the test? Give it a go. See whether it does in fact make you happier — at the same time as making a difference in the world. 

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