The following is an excerpt from How to Make Giving Feel Good, by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton. Read the full article at Greater Good.
On a fine summer morning in Vancouver, British Columbia, our graduate student Lara Aknin approached passersby with a box of envelopes and an unusual request: “Are you willing to be in an experiment?” If people said yes, she asked them how happy they were, got their phone number, and handed them one of her mysterious envelopes.
When people opened the envelope, they found a five dollar bill, accompanied by a simple note. For some of them, the note instructed:
Please spend this $5.00 today before 5pm on a gift for yourself or any of your expenses (e.g., rent, bills, or debt).
Others found a note that read:
Please spend this $5.00 today before 5pm on a gift for someone else or a donation to charity.
In addition, some people got similar envelopes, but with a 20 dollar bill rather than a five. Armed with this extra bit of cash and their instructions about how to spend it, people went on their way. That evening, they received a call asking them how happy they were feeling, as well as how they had spent the money.
How did their purchases affect them? By the end of the day, individuals who spent money on others—who engaged in what we call “prosocial spending”—were measurably happier than those who spent money on themselves—even though there were no differences between the two groups at the beginning of the day. The amount of money people found in their envelopes—five dollars or 20—had no effect on their happiness. How people spent the money mattered much more than how much of it they got.
This experiment suggests that spending as little as five dollars to help someone else can increase your own happiness.