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Can Happiness Actually Be Bought?

Most of us can’t even remember the first time we heard the phrase, “Money can’t buy happiness” because we’ve been hearing it our whole lives. It’s been imprinted on our brains by well-meaning adults and leaders who’ve taught us to search for joy in places other than our earnings and possessions. And we agree, right?

What if science in the 21st century has proven that mantra untrue? What if there was data to back up the notion that resources and assets can, in fact, alter your mood and even your potential? Well, it has. 

It turns out that money actually can buy happiness.  The question is, how? 

For those with an eye for “stuff,” this sounds like great news. Should we all head to the local gas station and buy lottery tickets? Not if you’re looking for happiness. We’ve all heard the “riches to rags” stories from lottery winners who, years after achieving the dream and winning a treasure, lament their lost relationships and unexpected debt. Momentary happiness turns into confusion and discontent. 

Detailed in the fascinating TEDxCambridge talk by Michael Norton, research is shared to prove that spending money can result in happiness. Norton turns the idea on its head when he reveals this secret: Spending money results in happiness when the money is spent on someone else. This was proven true on a personal, professional, and even a recreational level. 

Norton and his fellow researchers gave money to students at the University of British Columbia– with some instructed to spend the money on themselves and others instructed to spend it on others. The results were consistent: those who bought something for themselves or pocketed the money weren’t any happier than before the experiment, but those who gave to others and engaged in prosocial behavior were happier.

When the researchers worked with teams of professionals, the same results were found: those who spent money on their co-workers were happier than those who spent the same amount on themselves. But an unexpected benefit was discovered: after the pro-social experience of giving to others, the teams actually performed better! The return on investment was staggeringly different depending on the spending direction, with teams spending prosocially seeing a 17 times higher ROI than teams who invested personally. Happier, connected teams achieved more success.

Another important finding was in the amount of money spent correlated to the happiness experienced. The data showed the specific way the money is spent and the amount of money isn’t nearly as important as the fact that money was spent.

“You can do small, trivial things and still get the benefits, ” says Norton. 

Finally, the research was tested among a group of intramural athletes: a dodgeball team. Did the data go out the window in a totally new context?

 Once again the data was consistent, with teammates achieving more happiness and even performing together on the court after the giving experience. 

How can your team benefit from this surprising research? 

  • Find ways to give to one another, building community (and success!) with your prosocial behavior. Pool your resources and find a charity to benefit from your giving. 
  • Choose a recipient as a group, looking to your organization’s mission and your team’s passion to direct your giving, or you can choose a new recipient every time a donation is made. 

The important thing is to give together! 

During the winter months, agencies with food banks and crisis support services need our help more than ever. Several of our agencies have food banks, and support of The Holiday Fund supports them. Click here to give now.