Giving Is Good For You

Improbable as it may seem, winning the lottery remains one of the more common and longstanding fantasies of today’s workforce. Amassing a tremendous fortune overnight could afford a lifestyle of complete control. Surely, this would put an end to stress and hardship.

Yet while lavish creature comforts and other decadent expenditures would no doubt pamper pride, there are far more effective ways to buy happiness.

The secret? Spreading our wealth to the people around us–including total strangers.

Science unequivocally shows that both giving and altruism reap tremendous physical and psychological benefits for the giver, whereas spending on oneself has little to no positive effect. Dr. Michael Norton, the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, has made a career out of finding ways to literally buy happiness.

In 2008, Dr. Norton conducted a study in which two groups of college students received envelopes of money, with the first group instructed to spend the money on themselves and the second to spend it on someone else. Some of the envelopes contained five dollars, others 20 dollars, but the results revealed that the amount of money spent was ultimately inconsequential.

What really mattered was the group who spent their money on others yielded the greater sense of reward and fulfillment, while those who spent on themselves were left essentially unaffected.

It is worth noting that while any form of altruism can lead to personal happiness, one of the key components in this study revolved around subjects who benefited from personally witnessing the results of their positive action at work.

“Unfortunately, it is true that the psychological benefits of giving anonymously seem to be lower than the benefits of giving when you’re face to face with the person you’re giving to,” Dr. Norton tells BTR, “but it is still more rewarding to give anonymously than it is to simply spend money on yourself.”

When you give a gift to someone else, your brain’s pleasure and reward center is activated and releases a natural boost of endorphins–the same hormones which trigger “runner’s high.” Oxytocin, a sex hormone, is also triggered, and the individual can experience feelings of lowered stress and higher empathy. This, in turn, leads to feelings of closeness with others.

A major theme in Dr. Norton’s work is the idea of pro-social giving versus anti-social giving. Instead of focusing on ourselves when we spend, if we strive to create a sense of togetherness with those around us, our brains automatically deliver rewards.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the concept of altruism and community building is viewed as an essential component of survival and reproduction. It stands to reason that giving to friends and family, and watching them respond with feelings of warmth and acceptance, will too contribute a sense of fulfillment and belonging.

Altruism also has long term benefits which can lead to a longer and healthier life, according to a five year multi-institutional study helmed by Dr. Michael J. Poulin, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo.

The study, which surveyed 846 subjects, assessed the amount of stress its participants endured over the previous year, as well as the amount of tangible assistance they provided to friends and family members over the same period. Stress factors considered in the study included non-life-threatening illnesses, financial difficulties, and the deaths of relatives. The assistance that participants provided for their friends and family included providing transportation, babysitting, running errands, and performing household chores.

The research showed clearly that those who made it a regular point to help others were less likely to succumb to stressful events than those who didn’t.

“When we adjusted for age, baseline health and functioning and key psychosocial variables,” Poulin said, “the models for mortality revealed a significant interaction between helping behavior, stressful events, morbidity and mortality. Our conclusion is that helping others reduced mortality specifically by buffering the association between stress and mortality.”

Although many of us dream of hitting the lottery and splurging on cars, clothes, houses and other material comforts, it’s worth reminding ourselves (particularly in advance of the holiday season), that though it might sound cliche, spending on others is the surest way to attain the highest pleasures we can hope for.

Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.