142589609_f1e9e600f8_oWhat’s the best way to spend 10 dollars? Buy a coffee? Chocolate? A paid iPhone app? According to research out of Harvard Business School, any of these will work – as long as you give them away to somebody else.

They key to purchasing happiness, it turns out, is to spend your money on gifts rather than on yourself. In one of many studies (which have all come to the same conclusion) researchers gave money to participants in an envelope and told them to spend it on anything before 5 PM. The primary difference between the two groups was this: Half were told to spend the money on themselves and the other half were told to spend it on somebody else.

Some people picked up a coffee from Starbucks, others spent it on gifts like stuffed animals. Regardless of the purchase, or the amount of money that was provided inside the envelopes, the participants who gave their purchases away became happier – and the happiness of those who spent the money on themselves didn’t change at all.

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

– Winston Churchill

You might think this only works with people who have disposable income – surely somebody in poverty wouldn’t be happier if they spent it on somebody else.


Regardless of income or wealth, the effect is the same – spending money on others will make you happier, while buying something for yourself will do nothing for your happiness.

Note: This article refers to buying physical (or digital) goods. If you spend money on experiences for yourself, you will actually make yourself happier. See my article about this here to find out more on this topic.

aknin-map-2013 CropResearchers even looked beyond our borders to nearly every country in the world. Using information from globally administered Gallup polls, they looked at the correlation between the following two questions:

  1. “Did you donate money to charity recently?”
  2. “How happy are you with your life in general?”

Look at the map on the right. Countries that are green show a positive correlation (donating to charity makes people in these countries happier), and those that are red (pretty much just one: The Central African Republic) show a negative correlation. The trend is clear as glass: Happiness as a result of giving is a universally human condition, not one that is limited to wealthy countries.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

The Bonus

Sometimes you give something to somebody and they never return the favor. That’s fine, and should be left that way. After all, you already received happiness out of the transaction.

6833180184_27a8d2e669_oOther times, though, you receive something in return right away. It could happen right after your gift (bake a cake, for no reason, for your spouse, and you might find immediate reward) or delayed (bring donuts into the office every week, then, 10 years later, after you’ve started your own company, you might end up pitching the colleague who ate one of your apple fritters every week).

It’s not necessarily a reason to give to other people, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. One of my favorite inspirations speakers feels the same way:

“You can have everything in life that you want if you just give enough other people what they want.”

– Zig Ziglar

I haven’t found any research to back this up, but whenever I give to somebody I also feel a bit of a confidence boost. My wife says the same thing. It feels good to give, and can make you feel like your making the world a bit better of a place to live for others.

How to get started

2155363316_80b416b832_oNow you know: Giving makes you happier. Unfortunately, like anything in life, just knowing something doesn’t make you any more likely to actually do it.

So make a plan.

Do what works for you. I’m a productivity and list-making geek, so I make recurring reminders for myself that ‘ding’ my phone occasionally to do something nice or buy a small gift for somebody. You may be more of a ‘sticky notes on the refrigerator’ type of person. It doesn’t really matter what tool you use, as long as it works.

Who to give to?

Your phone beeps you with a reminder: Do something nice or buy a small gift for somebody. But what do you do? What do you get? Who do you buy it for?

Here are some ideas. I’ve kept the more obvious ones out of this list (buying flowers) to try to keep these a bit more creative:16428279968_d593815ba6_o

  • Babysit for somebody with young children, or a baby, so that they can go on a date for the first time in 2 years (they’ll thank you endlessly)
  • Help somebody carry their enormous load of groceries to their car
  • Buy high-quality groceries from an organic shop and bring them to a local food bank or shelter (or, in the UAE, to a construction camp)
  • Shovel the snow to your neighbor’s door in addition to your own (it isn’t too much extra effort – you’re already outside with a shovel)
  • Take your neighbor’s dog for a walk
  • Pay for somebody else’s parking at a car park or paid parking zone
  • Submit positive feedback to a small business you appreciate on a review site like Zomato or TravelAdvisor
  • Fund a good cause on a donation-based crowdsourcing platform like CrowdRise (you can help pay somebody’s medical bills, for example)

Keep yourself in balance

8335391593_6ace87e3aa_oGiving is good, and can make you happier. As always, though, there is a balance you need to keep. Don’t just do whatever anybody tells you to do and rationalize it as ‘giving.’ That isn’t giving, that’s being a people pleaser and allowing other people to set your agenda and priorities.

Do your good deeds on your own terms – not somebody else’s.

Start today by giving something to somebody. Jump onto Amazon and order something meaningful for a friend, or stop by the flower shop on the way home for your wife. See what happens – I bet you’ll feel the boost in happiness.

Heck, you can start right now: ‘Give’ this article to a friend for them to read 🙂

CC Images courtesy of whologwhy, Leonid MamchenkovStephen DownessrgpickerPen Waggener, and Thomas Hawk on Flickr

Keith Parker

Author Keith Parker

I have a passion for research into both happiness and the human race's tendency to make decisions that aren't in their own interest. As it turns out, the two areas of research are undeniably linked. Over the past decade, I've discovered a significant number of methods to achieve happiness. Unfortunately, there is a lot of information to digest (sorry, there is no simple 'one-step to a happy life'). For this reason, I launched this blog, A Happy Life, to share a combination of what I've learned through research and through experience. That experience, through over 20 countries and ending in Dubai, UAE, covers some pretty wild territory. I hope you enjoy the ride with me.

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