Joy from giving lasts much longer than joy from getting, study shows

CHICAGO — In this season of giving and getting, the findings are in. It is more blessed to give than to receive.

According to two new studies conducted by researchers with the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, giving to others rather than to ourselves makes us happier.

Have you ever noticed that your enjoyment in a repeated activity or event decreases over time no matter how wonderful it is? When this happens, you are experiencing what researchers call hedonic adaptation. The joy of having our own desires met is always fleeting. Perhaps surprisingly, however, giving to others creates a more lasting happiness.

“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 study co-author Ed O’Brien, of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, in a release from the Association for Psychological Science. “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.”

In the first experiment, 96 college student participants were given $5 each day for five days. The students were told to spend the money on exactly the same thing each day. Some of the participants were randomly assigned to spend the money on themselves, while some were assigned to spend the money on others — maybe an online donation to the same charity each day or even cash placed in a tip jar at the same café.

Participants self-reported at the end of each day how they felt about the money they had spent, and how they rated their overall happiness.

The results of the daily spending challenge showed a clear pattern. While participants began with very similar levels of happiness, the students who had spent money on themselves felt decreasingly happy over the five-day period. Conversely, participants who gave their money to someone else, however, continued to feel the same level of joy on the fifth day as they did on the first day.

In the second experiment, 502 participants played 10 rounds of a word puzzle game online. For each round won, they earned a nickel, which they could either keep or donate to a favorite charity. Participants self-reported after each round the degree of joy they felt from winning.

As in the first experiment, those who gave their winnings to others retained higher levels of happiness for longer periods than those who kept their winnings for themselves. This was true even after researchers accounted for other explanations involved in charitable giving, such as the time and effort it takes to donate.

“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.”

Researchers think that there might be an explanation. When we focus on outcomes, like getting paid, we are in comparison mode. This makes us lose out on the subtle feelings of each individual experience and leads to a feeling of “never enough.” On the other hand, each act of giving removes the comparison aspect and so has a fresh, new feel every time.

The authors say their findings prompt more ideas for future research. If giving boosts feelings of social connection and belonging, would the results hold true with larger amounts of money, if the money were being given to friends or strangers or if the prosocial behavior involved something other than money?

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

Research findings were published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.