Give for happiness

Give for happiness

Joseph Darby

How spending money on others can make you happy

The season of the holidays is getting further in the rear-view mirror for most of us and so are the (sometimes awkward) family congregations and gift exchanges that came with it.

Holiday-related gift-giving practices are universal across every human culture worldwide. In fact, you could probably argue that major “holiday” events across all cultures are just an extravagant excuse for people to give to each other.

It makes sense. Gift-giving generates social cohesion, brings people closer together, and makes everyone happier.

How to be happy – according to research

In happiness research, there are many findings an onlooker may call, “surprising yet unsurprising.” For example:

  • It is commonly accepted that lottery winners end up no happier after winning the lottery – this is both surprising and totally unsurprising when you remember how most lottery winners spend the money, combined with them not having the self-satisfaction of earning it in the first place.
  • The fact that parents of young children are measurably less happy than the average person is both surprising and completely unsurprising when you consider how little sleep they must be getting.

Another of these “surprising yet unsurprising” findings is that spending on other people makes you happier than spending on yourself. Again, this may be surprising when you think about how awesome you would look in a new jacket, or how great it might feel riding your new jet-ski – but is totally unsurprising when you think of the joy on the face of someone you care about.

Here’s what’s even more surprising: research shows that spending money on others makes you happier, even if that other person is a total stranger.

Yes, indiscriminate selflessness is good for your mental health and emotional well-being, as well as the health and well-being of others. Gift-giving may be one of those rare social activities with almost no psychological downside (ugly sweaters at Christmas aside). So, the next time you’re wandering through a shopping mall grumbling to yourself, just remember… the end result is supposed to make you feel better.

Not all gifts are equal

As anyone who has received a hideous pair of socks from grandma can tell you, not all gifts are equal – they don’t all generate the same amount of happiness for the givers and receivers.

How so?

When it comes down to it, there are only two reasons to give a gift:

  1. To make the recipient happy.
  2. To generate a greater sense of closeness within the relationship.

For the first category (making them happy) there are two general principles to follow: a) give them what’s useful, and/or b) give them experiences. Things are fine in the event it is something they truly want, but if you don’t know what they want, it’s better to give what’s useful (i.e., power tools to fix their busted car door, a gift card to their favourite shop, etc.), or to give an experience such as a spa voucher, tickets to a rugby game and so on.


  • What if you cannot think of an experience or something useful for them?
  • What if they do not want any material object or thing?

Well… that is where it gets controversial: give them cash. We know, we know – cash seems so lifeless and dull. Society might even see cash gifts as lazy and thoughtless. But in surveys, people consistently say they would prefer to receive cash than most gifts. In fact, it is the givers who do not enjoy giving money. The receivers tend to be thrilled.

This is even more true if you are trying to pick a gift for someone who is struggling financially. If someone is broke, nothing is more helpful than money. Various bodies of research has repeatedly found that people in need of money will generally spend it well when they get it (this includes the homeless).

For the second category (to feel close to someone) research shows that you should give something personally significant. This can be anything from a family heirloom to an object that represents your shared history together, or even a silly toy that reminds them of an inside joke the two of you share. Unlike happiness gifts, personal closeness gifts work better as objects because the objects serve as reminders and tokens of the relationship. They give people something tangible to become emotionally attached to. Personal closeness gifts can actually work better if they are not expensive, as expensive items will sometimes distract from the personal meaning inherent in the object. In fact, it is almost as if buying a three-dollar knick-knack shows more affection because it sub-communicates to the person, “I don’t have to spend money to show how much I care about you.”

The bottom line - giving boosts your happiness

The research is clear: if you want to be happier then giving is the way to do it.

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