New research shows that giving to others is a continual source of happiness, no matter how often we do it.
“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,” said Ed O’Brien, Ph.D., a psychology researcher at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
“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.”
For the research, O’Brien and Samantha Kassirer of the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management conducted two studies.
In one experiment, university students received $5 every day for 5 days. They were required to spend the money on the exact same thing each day.
The researchers randomly assigned participants to spend the money either on themselves or on someone else, such as by leaving money in a tip jar at the same café or making an online donation to the same charity every day.
The students then reflected on their spending experience and overall happiness at the end of each day.
The data, from a total of 96 participants, showed a clear pattern: Participants started off with similar levels of self-reported happiness and those who spent money on themselves reported a steady decline in happiness over the five-day period.
But happiness did not seem to fade for those who gave their money to someone else, the researchers discovered. The joy from giving for the fifth time in a row was just as strong as it was at the start.
The researchers then conducted a second experiment online, which allowed them to keep the tasks consistent across participants.
In this experiment, 502 participants played 10 rounds of a word puzzle game. They won $0.05 per round, which they either kept or donated to a charity of their choice. After each round, participants disclosed the degree to which winning made them feel happy, elated, and joyful, the researchers explained.
Again, the self-reported happiness of those who gave their winnings away declined far more slowly than the happiness reported by those who kept their winnings.
Further analyses ruled out some potential alternative explanations, such as the possibility that participants who gave to others had to think longer and harder about what to give, which could promote higher happiness, the researchers noted.
“We considered many such possibilities, and measured over a dozen of them,” O’Brien said. “None of them could explain our results. There were very few incidental differences between ‘get’ and ‘give’ conditions, and the key difference in happiness remained unchanged when controlling for these other variables in the analyses.”
Adaptation to experiences that bring us happiness can be functional to the extent that it motivates us to pursue and acquire new resources, the researchers say. Why doesn’t this also happen with the happiness we feel when we give?
The researchers said that when people focus on an outcome, such as getting paid, they can easily compare outcomes, which diminishes their sensitivity to each experience. When they focus on an action, such as donating to a charity, they may focus less on comparison and instead experience each act of giving as a unique happiness-inducing event, they say.
According to the researchers, their findings raise some interesting questions for future research — for example, would the findings hold if people were giving or receiving larger amounts of money? Or giving to friends versus strangers?
The researchers have also considered looking beyond giving or receiving monetary rewards, since pro-social behaviour includes a wide range of experiences.
“Right now we’re testing repeated conversation and social experiences, which also may get better rather than worse over time,” O’Brien said.