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Want to be happy? Giving is more gratifying than receiving

January 7, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
'Tis better to give than to receive, goes the old saying. But better for whom? Economics correspondent Paul Solman talks with psychology scholars about the ways altruism can benefit those who give.
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GWEN IFILL: Now: the power of altruism, not just for those on the receiving end, but also how it provides physical and emotional benefits for the giver.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman takes a look, part of our weekly segment Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the “NewsHour.”

WOMAN: I want you to meet my friend Monkey. Hello. Do you want to say hello?

PAUL SOLMAN: It is better to give than to receive. You may have heard it when you were about this age, or even in the past few weeks, when you bought out the entire Christmas list.

WOMAN: Look, Monkey has a bowl just like you. You don’t have any treats and neither does Monkey.

PAUL SOLMAN: But better for whom? A behavioral economics experiment has come up with a provocative answer.

WOMAN: I’m going to give them all to you.

PAUL SOLMAN: Psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn designed this test to see if even very young kids could be happier giving than receiving.

ELIZABETH DUNN, University of British Columbia: We worked with kind of the toddler equivalent of gold, namely goldfish crackers. We gave them a bunch goldfish for themselves, and then we gave them the chance to give some of these goldfish away to a puppet named Monkey.

WOMAN: Will you give one to Monkey? Yes?

CHILD: Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Dunn recorded dozens of kids doing this, then had students who knew nothing about the experiment compare the facial expressions when receiving and when giving. When were the kids happiest?

ELIZABETH DUNN: What we see is that the toddlers are happier when they’re getting the chance to give the goldfish away, as compared to when they’re getting the goldfish for themselves.

PAUL SOLMAN: Much happier. So, it’s no surprise that, with fellow happiness scholar Michael Norton, Dunn has written a book: “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending.”

It features five key takeaways.

ELIZABETH DUNN: Well, if you want to use money to buy happiness, we suggest you should buy experiences, you should buy time, you should make it a treat, you should pay now and consume later, and you should invest in others.

PAUL SOLMAN: Invest in others, the most surprising finding of the five and one which regularly elicits skepticism, says business school professor Michael Norton.

MICHAEL NORTON, Harvard University: A lot of people, when we talk about the fact that giving makes you happy and you’re better off giving than spending your money on yourself, will argue back, first off, that we’re crazy, and, secondly, that that can’t be true, because I don’t really know what you like, but I definitely know what I like. And so, just by definition, I’m better at spending my money on myself and getting happiness than you, because I don’t know everything about you.

WOMAN: Can panda have one? Yes. Can one go in his bowl?

MICHAEL NORTON: It’s just not what we see in this study. So, even with these toddlers, who are 2 years old, even if it’s the case that their parents are making them give in order to be a nice person, they’re smiling.

And smiling is something that just comes out. It’s not something that you can control very well.

PAUL SOLMAN: And it’s not just toddlers. Dunn also designed an experiment for grownups.

ELIZABETH DUNN: We went out on our campus at the University of British Columbia and just walked up to people in the morning and handed them either a $5 or a $5 bill, which we asked them to spend by the end of the day. And there was a catch. We told some people they had to spend the money on themselves. We told some people they had to spend the money on somebody else.

And what we found was that people who’d been randomly assigned to spend this money on somebody else felt better by the end of the day than people who’d been assigned to spend that same small amount of money on themselves.

PAUL SOLMAN: A small experiment, small money, small number of subjects. And Canadians are unusually nice, eh?

ELIZABETH DUNN: So, we conducted parallel experiments in Canada, Uganda, South Africa, as well as collecting correlational data from around the world. And what we saw was that in poor and rich countries alike, people felt happier when they had the chance to spend money on others rather than themselves.

PAUL SOLMAN: Best of all, though, is the chance to spend it on others you can actually see.

MICHAEL NORTON: So, a lot of the charitable giving that a lot of us do, we write a check and it goes somewhere. And we can show that that does make you happier, but think of the difference between the check goes into the ether and you don’t know what happened with the money, compared to you really tangibly see the impact that your money had on another person.

PAUL SOLMAN: Or even just the imaginary effect on a stuffie.

WOMAN: Can you give one to giraffe?

PAUL SOLMAN: But are all kids equally altruistic? Is there a normal distribution, a kind of bell curve, some give a lot and are really happy, some are not happy at all, most in the middle?

ELIZABETH DUNN: It’s actually surprisingly consistent. So, most of the toddlers are happier when they’re giving than when they’re getting the treats for themselves.

PAUL SOLMAN: So what’s that red spot on the brain?

ABIGAIL MARSH, Georgetown University: So, the red mark in the brain is an area of functional activation in the region called the amygdala.

PAUL SOLMAN: Georgetown University psychology Professor Abigail Marsh measures the brain activity of what she terms extraordinary altruists, people who donated a kidney to a total stranger.

ABIGAIL MARSH: The amygdala is part of what’s called the mammalian brain. It’s involved with emotions like fear and it’s involved in social processes, like, to some extent, love and caring. This is an image from a brain scan that we did looking at differences in amygdala activation in people who had donated a kidney to a stranger relative to people who have not.

PAUL SOLMAN: Her research, she says, was unequivocal: The altruistic amygdalas were about 8 percent larger than normal.

ABIGAIL MARSH: Altruistic kidney donors showed increased activation in the amygdala when they saw somebody in distress, which is the opposite of people at the other end of the compassion spectrum, psychopaths, who show reduced activation in the amygdala when they see somebody in distress.

PAUL SOLMAN: And in one study of psychopaths’ brains:

ABIGAIL MARSH: Their amygdalas were shown to be 17 to 18 percent smaller than that of controls, so this also seems to be related to having lower levels of concern or compassion for other people.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, Dr. Seuss was right. The Grinch’s heart is really three sizes too small?

ABIGAIL MARSH: Yes, I do use that analogy sometimes. In fact, maybe it was his amygdala that was too small.

PAUL SOLMAN: So when people find that giving is more gratifying than receiving, what’s going on?

ABIGAIL MARSH: Everything I think we have learned from our research is consistent with the idea that it is a good thing and beneficial for a person to be giving and generous to other people.

WOMAN: Do you want to give the last treat to you or to Monkey?

PAUL SOLMAN: One last experiment: the effect of giving on blood pressure. Professor Dunn gave adults over 65 with high blood pressure pill bottles filled with money.

ELIZABETH DUNN: We asked them to take home these pill bottles and open them on specified days over the course of three weeks. Now, inside each bottle was actually $20. And if you look at the label, there are some instructions about what you should be doing with that money.

PAUL SOLMAN: Please spend this money on someone else by 4:30 p.m. at the date listed below.

ELIZABETH DUNN: Other people got pill bottles that looked very similar, except the instruction is a little bit different.

PAUL SOLMAN: Please spend this money on yourself.

ELIZABETH DUNN: So, everybody was pretty happy getting pill bottles filled with money. But when we measured their blood pressure, both before and after the study, what we found was that people who got these pill bottles telling them to spend the money on somebody else showed a significant reduction in their blood pressure from the beginning to the end of the study.

In contrast, people who got this pill bottle who were told to spend the money on themselves just showed no change from the beginning to the end.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, Dunn insists we issue this warning. No matter how generous the hypertense among you become after watching this story, please do not give up your blood pressure medication just yet.

But if you want a quick ticket to happiness, it seems, whether your stash is in gold or goldfish, give it away. You will be happy you did.

From Washington, D.C., and Boston, this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, happily sharing this news with you, the “PBS NewsHour” audience.

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