Why giving really is better then receiving: The science behind the mood boosting effects of giving to others.

If you found £20 note on the floor, would you keep it, or give it away to someone else?  (Be honest, now—what would you really do?)  If you’re like most people, you would pocket the cash and take yourself to the shops with the well-trodden belief that a little retail therapy would brighten your day more so than, say, making a donation to a charity or buying a gift for your grandmother. However, you would also be mistaken, according to a Harvard Business Review working paper.  Not only do happy people give more, but giving seems to cause people to feel happy—and one experiment shows that’s true even compared to spending the same amount of money on yourself.

Does giving make you happy or do happy people give?

A variety of studies have associated positive mood states with increased giving.  One study from 1972 demonstrated that when individuals experienced positive events (such as receiving a biscuit or finding money in a payphone) they were more likely than a control group to help others.  The findings seem to apply even to young children —a similar study of 7-8 year old children found that when kids were asked to tell a happy story, they were more likely to share money with classmates than students who were asked to tell an unhappy story.  Similarly, a 2008 study examined the outgoings for study participants, and found that those who gave more of their money to others (in the form of gifts for friends and family, or charity contributions) were more likely to say yes when asked, “do you feel happy, in general,” than those who spent more money on themselves (in the form of personal bills/expenses or personal luxuries).

Sceptics might conclude that givers tend to be happy people, but that doesn’t necessarily prove that giving in and of itself will turn a Scrooge into a St. Nick.  They might ask: “Is there any evidence that giving actually makes people happy?”

Interestingly, there is.  On the most basic level, in a functional magnetic resonance study (fMRI) from 2007, researchers examined the activity in various brain regions for participants while they were deciding how to split $100 between themselves and a food bank.  Making a decision to donate to the food bank activated the region of the ventral striatum, an area of the brain associated with pleasure (the area of the brain activated when looking at attractive faces and, believe it or not, taking cocaine) more so than thinking about keeping money for oneself.

Another study from 2008 concluded that volunteering increases life satisfaction.  This study was unique in that it was quasi-experimental: researchers examined data collected shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall but before reunification, a time when volunteering opportunities dropped dramatically in Eastern Germany.  Motivated but unable to find opportunities, would-be volunteers from East Germany were less satisfied with their lives than a control group of volunteers who were able to contribute (this study suggests causation— individuals within the groups were similar in that both had the intent to volunteer, so the finding can’t be explained away by the idea that volunteers are simply happier people in general).

On a smaller scale, even simple acts of kindness seem to increase happiness levels.  In a study from 2004, students were randomly assigned to either commit five random acts of kindness over six weeks, or given no specific instructions.  After six weeks, students who performed the random acts of kindness were significantly happier than those who did not.

But what about spending money?

That’s all well and good, you might say, but how does giving to others compare to spending money on yourself?  In 2008, a study sought to answer this very question: researchers asked participants at a shopping centre to report their baseline happiness, then randomly assigned them to one of four conditions: receive either $5 or $20 to spend either on themselves (a luxury, bill, or expense) or on others (a gift, or a donation to charity).  Researchers then contacted individuals in the evening to follow-up on their current happiness level.  Although most participants thought that spending on themselves would make them happier, the results of the research found otherwise: participants who spent money on others were significantly happier at the end of the day than participants who spent money on themselves, and interestingly, it did not matter whether they spent $5 or $20.  Even more interesting, and contrary to most of the advertising we read on a daily basis, spending money on oneself did not increase happiness levels at all.  The researchers concluded that where happiness is concerned, how you spend your money is much more important than how much you spend.

In short, it appears true both that happy people give and that giving makes people happy.  So the next time you’re after a mood boost, try giving.  It appears that even a small act of kindness can help in the search for happiness.


Anik L, et al.  Feeling Good about Giving: The Benefits (and Costs) of Self-Interested Charitable Behavior.”  Harvard Business School Working Paper 2009