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Feeling happy

Giving away money could be good for your emotional wellbeing

DEAN LISK NOTE: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This content was funded but not approved by the advertisers.

As a young child, Dr. Lara Aknin would daydream about ways that she could help other people.

“I remember I was eight years old, and it was my parents’ anniversary, and I would lay awake at night thinking of all the magical ways I could spend the $5 in my piggy bank,” she said. “I thought maybe I could arrange for a babysitter, and they could go out for dinner. Clearly, I had no idea of the value of a dollar at that point.”

Now an associate professor of social psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Aknin has a greater awareness of the value of money, not only when it comes to its purchasing power, but also on the effect donating money can have on a person’s happiness.

In her research, Aknin, who also heads the university’s Helping and Happiness Lab and has co-edited the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s “World Happiness Report,” looks at questions about when and why people help, who we help and whether giving makes us feel good.

“I think humans are pretty complex people. If you look at the news right now there is evidence of the way people can hurt each other, but I also think humans can be these really wonderful creatures who can go out of their ways to help others. Not only that, but we feel good, in general, when we help other people.”

We spoke to her recently about generosity and happiness.

Have you found a connection between giving or volunteering and its effect on wellbeing?

The primary thing my colleagues and I have studied is whether spending even small amounts of money on other people can lead to greater happiness or emotional rewards as spending similar amounts on ourselves. The short answer is, “Yes.” We see this time and time again.

We started studying this question when I was a grad student, and I went out on campus and gave students $5 or $20 and randomly assigned them to spend it that day on themselves or on another person by making a charitable donation or buying something for a friend of family member.

We called them in the evening and asked them about their happiness, and,long story short, we found that people who were randomly assigned to spend on others were significantly happier at the end of the day.

(The results) were published in the journal “Science” in 2008, but one of the questions we got time and time again was that this is great, but North American college students are relatively privileged by international standards. Maybe people don’t have the resources or opportunity might not feel the same way. My colleagues and I started asking that question on whether rich or poor countries would have different effects or is it consistent. We ran studies in India, South Africa and Uganda and we found similar emotional rewards.

In 2019 you also studied 1,200 ex-offenders. What did you find?

These were individuals who self-reported, privately and anonymously, whether they engaged in a felony-level offence or higher and we asked for some details about the offences. So, a large sample of people who are reporting to have been involved, in some cases, in child trafficking or rape and murder.

They were given a small amount of money that they could choose to help children in need through real, schoolbased charity programs, or could buy something for themselves. After, we asked them to report their current emotions, and it was consistent with what we had seen before, although the affect was weaker. People who give generously reported higher levels of happiness.

Anecdotally some of those participants reached out to me afterward and said, ‘Thank you for giving me this opportunity to give. Rarely do I get that chance.’

What is happening in our brains?

I am not a neuroscientist but there is a lot of research on what people consider pleasure centres of the brain, so places that light up when positive things or rewarding things are activated — so like when people have delicious food or think about or are having sex. Some research has found that when people donate, they also have activations in these pleasure centres of the brain.

In my work with adults, we ask people to self-report how they are feeling, in part because we want to know how people say they are feeling but also because it is a more low-cost entry point into answering the question. Brian scans cost thousands of dollars and you can’t do that out in the world, you need to bring them into a lab.

In young kids, we can ask them how they are feeling, but they just say they are happy all the time, so we videotape their facial expressions and look at the extent to which they smile. And even with young kids under the age of two, we see them smiling more when they are giving away a treat that they love then when they are receiving the treat.

A lot of Canadians are reporting being stressed or worried these days. What role can generosity play in combatting some of those feelings?

I think giving is rewarding in that we are an extremely social species and inherently loosing things is not rewarding for us. We don’t like dropping money on the street but when we spend money on other people that is an opportunity for us to build and strengthen our social relationships. And social relationships are the key, probably the best indicator of social wellbeing.

For all of us who are experiencing levels of anxiety and stress and sadness, I think our social relationships are probably one of our biggest lifelines and sources of support. These small acts of generosity — they don’t need to be large, in some of our studies people are spending as little as $2 — can build and strengthen social relationships and they can also have these positive short term emotional consequences.

I also think being in the position to be able to offer these small acts of generosity make us feel like we may have a little more capacity and resources. There is research that says when you volunteer your time you actually feel like you have more time. Sometimes when we give, we might realize we have enough to give and feel grateful for that. Gratitude can sometimes be a nice antidote to these difficult feelings.

There is an adage that money can’t buy you happiness. Maybe giving it away can?

Sometimes when we give, we might realize we have enough to give and feel grateful for that.


I think it matters how you spend it, but I think you are right. Buying extra things and trinkets for ourselves is not the path to greater happiness, but using it as an opportunity to connect and show we care about others? Well, I think the research supports that.





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