Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal

by Lara B. Aknin, Elizabeth W. Dunn, Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh, John Helliwell, Robert Biswas-Diener, Imelda Kemeza, Paul Nyende, Claire Ashton-James & Michael I. Norton

Overview — Can money buy happiness? Apparently it can--if that money is spent on someone else. New research shows that people around the world gain emotional benefits from using their financial resources to benefit others. The research, which included data from 136 countries, was conducted by Lara B. Aknin, Elizabeth W. Dunn, Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh, and John Helliwell, University of British Columbia; Robert Biswas-Diener, Centre of Applied Positive Psychology; Imelda Kemeza, Mbarara University of Science & Technology; Paul Nyende, Makerere University; Claire Ashton-James, University of Groningen; and Michael I. Norton, Harvard Business School. Key concepts include:

  • Much like eating or sex, generosity seems to generate positive feelings in almost everyone, regardless of cultural context.
  • Survey respondents reported a greater sense of well-being after reflecting on a time when they spent money on others rather than on themselves.
  • Although spending money on others differs in both form and frequency in poor versus rich countries, the emotional consequences are consistently positive.

Author Abstract

This research provides the first support for a possible psychological universal: human beings around the world derive emotional benefits from using their financial resources to help others (prosocial spending). Analyzing survey data from 136 countries, we show that prosocial spending is consistently associated with greater happiness. To test for causality, we conduct experiments within two very different countries (Canada and Uganda) and show that spending money on others has a consistent, causal impact on happiness. In contrast to traditional economic thought-which places self-interest as the guiding principle of human motivation-our findings suggest that the reward experienced from helping others may be deeply ingrained in human nature, emerging in diverse cultural and economic contexts.

Paper Information