‘Tis the season to be jolly, indeed!

Flowers.

Image via Pixabay.

All those gifts you prepared for your loved ones this Christmas likely made you feel really happy, new research reveals. The study, carried out by a duo of US researchers, suggests that giving really makes us happier than getting.

Big red sack’o’goodies

“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,” says Ed O’Brien, a psychology researcher at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and paper co-author.

“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.”

Our brains do this annoying thing called “hedonic adaptation” — basically, we feel less and less happiness for a particular event or activity each time we experience it. That’s why things stop feeling ‘fresh’ after a while, boredom sets in, and we go for the next thrilling thrill. However, giving to others may be exempt from this type of adaptation, the paper reports.

The team, composed of O’Brien and Samantha Kassirer (Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management), found that participants who repeatedly gave gifts to others felt consistently happy. Those who repeatedly received the same gifts felt declining levels of happiness, they add.

In the first trial, the team worked with a group of 96 participants, randomly assigned to either of two groups. They would receive $5 every day for 5 days, which they had to spend on the exact same item every time. However, one group was asked to spend the money for themselves, while the other was asked to spend it for someone else (by leaving money in a tip jar at the same café or making an online donation to the same charity, for example). At the end of each day, participants were asked to reflect on the ‘spending experience’ and how much overall happiness they felt.

Participants started with similar levels of self-reported happiness, the team explains, but the two groups had diverged significantly by the trial’s end. Those who spend the money on themselves reported a steady decline in happiness throughout the 5-day period. Those who gave their money to someone else, however, felt no such decline: they got just as much joy out of giving the fifth time as they did the first time.

The team carried out a second trial online, which allowed them to keep the tasks consistent for everybody. Working with 502 participants, the researchers set up a 10-round word puzzle game. Players won $0.05 per round, which they could either keep or donate to a charity of their choice. After each round, participants disclosed the degree to which winning made them feel happy, elated, and joyful.

Here, too, self-reported levels of happiness were more stable for those who donated the winnings instead of keeping it for themselves. One of the explanations the team is considering is that participants who gave to others had to think longer and harder about what to give, which could promote higher happiness.

“We considered many such possibilities, and measured over a dozen of them,” says O’Brien. “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.”

The team writes that when people think in terms of on an outcome (i.e. ‘how much money I made’), they can easily compare with other outcomes — these are quantifiable results. The comparison, however, sours the experience, diminishing an individual’s sensitivity to it. When we focus on the action (such as donating to a charity), however, we’re not as interested in the outcome — because of this, we can focus on the act of giving, treating it as a unique, happiness-inducing event. We may also be slower to adapt to happiness generated by giving because giving to others helps us maintain our prosocial reputation, reinforcing our sense of social connection and belonging.

Still, the results can use some fleshing-out. One particular area of interest for the team is how would the findings hold when dealing with larger amounts of money. They would also be interested to see if giving to friends, rather than strangers, would generate a different experience for the giver. Finally, they would like to expand the research beyond money — prosocial behavior includes a wide range of experiences, they explain.

“Right now we’re testing repeated conversation and social experiences, which also may get better rather than worse over time,” O’Brien explains.

The paper “Impediments to Effective Altruism: The Role of Subjective Preferences in Charitable Giving” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.

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