Science Proves It's Better to Give Than Receive

Giving gifts is truly better than receiving them. HAKINMHAN/Shutterstock

You've been told that giving is better than receiving, and it turns out that's true.

According to two small studies, the pleasure we get from giving gifts to others lasts longer than the pleasure we get from receiving them.

"If you want to sustain happiness over time, past research tells us that we need to take a break from what we're currently consuming and experience something new," Ed O'Brien, a researcher from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business who was involved in both studies, said in a statement.

"Our research reveals that the kind of thing may matter more than assumed: Repeated giving, even in identical ways to identical others, may continue to feel relatively fresh and relatively pleasurable the more that we do it."

Keep on giving

O'Brien and Samantha Kassirer from the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management conducted two experiments to determine the levels of people's happiness when they gave away money or when they spent it on themselves.

The first experiment involved 96 college students receiving $5 every day for five days. They had to spend the money on the same thing each day. Researchers randomly assigned the participants either to spend the money on themselves or give it to someone else, like through a tip or an online donation to charity. The participants ended each day by reflecting on their spending experience and their overall level of happiness.

Regardless of how they spent the money, everyone started off with roughly the same level of self-reported happiness. Those who spent the money on themselves, however, experienced a decline in happiness over the five-day period. The people who gave the money to someone else maintained their happiness levels. The act of giving caused the same amount of happiness each day, and the people did not get tired of it.

A second study, this one conducted online, involved 502 people playing 10 rounds of a word puzzle game. Each round the player won, they received 5 cents. The participants could either keep the 5 cents or donate it to a charity. After each round, people rated the levels of happiness they felt after winning a round.

A child and an adult exchange a dollar bill
Giving something to someone else can make you happy for a bit longer than receiving something will. Emzii F Clef/Shutterstock

As with the first study, those who gave away the money reported a longer stretch of happiness than those who kept the nickel for themselves.

The science of why

O'Brien and Kassirer weighed reasons why the folks who gave away the money felt happier than those who kept it or spent it on themselves, including whether or not thinking about giving it away, which has been shown to promote happiness, influenced what people felt.

"We considered many such possibilities, and measured over a dozen of them," O’Brien said. "None of them could explain our results; there were very few incidental differences between 'get' and 'give' conditions, and the key difference in happiness remained unchanged when controlling for these other variables in the analyses."

Both studies will be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science.

As for why people who used the money for themselves aren't as happy as long, the researchers explain that focusing on an outcome — like getting paid — can diminish the experience, especially when it's possible to compare outcomes. When people focused on an action — like giving to charity — they concentrate more on the act itself as a joyful event, explaining why happiness stayed more consistent among those who used the money on others.

So the next time you think about spending on yourself, maybe give it to someone in need instead. Your happiness will thank you.