Is it better to give than to receive?

Money will not buy you love but it might buy you happiness if you spend it in the right way. We may have heard the old adage “it’s better to give than to receive”: spending money on others or giving to charity puts a bigger smile on your face than buying things for yourself.

Usually, a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation is responsible for us feeling less happiness every time we experience some event or activity again. We get used even to the best things and want more. But when we give to others, something different happens. Psychology researchers Ed O’Brien from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Samantha Kassirer of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management carried out two studies. They discovered that the happiness of the subjects declined much less or not at all if they repeatedly gave gifts to others as opposed to getting the same gifts themselves.

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. 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.

Ed O’Brien

One of the experiments consisted of having 96 university students getting $5 every day over the course of 5 days. The catch – they had to spend it on the same exact thing either for themselves or someone else (like donating to charity or putting money in a tip jar). At the end of each day, the study participants had to reflect on their spending and level of happiness. 

This study showed that over the 5 days, the levels of self-reported happiness decreased for those who spent money on themselves. Those who gave money to someone else did not show such a fade in happiness, however. The joy and satisfaction of giving is just as powerful every time you give it.

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.

Mahatma Gandhi

For the second experiment, the researchers had 502 online participants play 10 rounds of a word puzzle game. The 5 cents they won each round could be either donated or kept for themselves. After each round, the subjects reported how joyful the winning made them feel. Those who gave the won money away reported their happiness decrease much slower than those who hung on to the gains.

The fuller explanation for why people react this way to giving may lie in the fact, say the researchers, that when we focus on an outcome like a paycheck, we are setting ourselves up for being less happy. Paychecks can be compared to one another, which reduces our sensitivity to each such experience. When we focus on actions, like donating to a charity for example, comparison becomes less important. What happens instead is that we treat each instance of giving as a unique event that can bring us inner satisfaction and elation.

The value of giving to others was one of the themes reiterated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In arguably his finest sermon, The Drum Major Instinct, King notes that personal greatness and service to others are intertwined. In a world filled with people’s selfish endeavors and nations’ destructive engagement in war and violence, King emphasized that a desire to be the best (the drum major) can be transformed from a selfish impulse to an instrument for justice if people adopt service to others as their goal. In King’s poignant words, “Everybody can be great, because everyone can serve.”

It does not matter whether you give a lot or a little, give gifts or intangible things. What matters most for meaningful happiness is appreciating the importance of those around you — family, friends, and community — and do so each and every day of the year.

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