Will Giving to Charity Make You Feel Happier? — Prof. Stephen Knowles

Professor Stephen Knowles - University of Otago

January 28, 2021

Giving Good Vibes?

Have you ever wondered whether donating money to charity makes you happier?

Lucky for us, there is a depth of research by experimental economists and social psychologists that might point us towards an answer.

Let’s first discuss the research that shows diving money away makes people happier…

Pro Happy — Giving Feels Good

Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin and Michael Norton Dunn conducted a survey where they asked 682 Americas to (1) rated their level of happiness and (2) report how much they spent in a typical month on personal spending (that is bills and expenses, plus treats for themselves) and prosocial spending (gifts for others and donations to charity).

They found that people with a higher share of prosocial spending tended to be happier than those with lower shares of prosocial spending.

Sounds great right? The problem is, this isn’t cut and dry — It could be for example that people with different personality types are predisposed to spend more on others and are happier; they could be mutually exclusive of each other.

So let's go deeper… To establish whether the correlation between prosocial spending and happiness was causal (not mutually exclusive) the researchers conducted an experiment. Participants were asked to rate their levels of happiness then split into two different groups.

The first group (or “treatment” to be fancy) were given $20 and asked to spend the money that day on themselves. The second group were given $20 and asked to use it to buy a gift for someone or donate it to charity. At the end of the day, participants were phoned and again asked to rate their level of happiness.

And the results? On average, the happiness of all participants increased, but it increased by more for those who had been asked to spend the money on others.

In short, giving does feel good.

Support Giving GIF by INTO ACTION

If You’re Asked To Give, It May Make You Less Happy

As another precaution to establish whether the correlation between prosocial spending and happiness was causal, the researchers to see if there are people who give, but prefer not to be asked.

Conducted by Stefano Della Vigna, John List and Ulrike Malmendier, this field experiment was conducted in the context of a door-to-door fundraiser.

The control group was a standard door-to-door fundraiser who would visit unexpectedly. In the treatments, a flyer was attached to people’s door handles a few days prior to the collection, letting them know the approximate time the collector would call on collection day. There was also a box on the flyer that people could tick indicating they did not want to be disturbed when the collector called. What happened when the collectors called?

In the treatment group, a significant proportion of people had ticked the box, so they obviously preferred not to be asked to donate.

Of those who had not ticked the box, more didn’t answer the door than in the control group, suggesting they didn’t answer the door because they knew who was knocking and didn’t want to be asked.

Fewer people donated in the treatment group, suggesting many of the people who opted out of being asked would have donated if they hadn’t been able to easily opt-out. In other words, there are people who donate when asked, who would prefer not to, suggesting donating reduces their happiness.

Debt GIF

So Will Donating Make You Happier?

So back to the question — Does donating make people happier? From the research above, the degree of happiness varies and depends on the context.

However, based on the study by Vigna et al, if you were one of the people who would rather not be asked (and in turn, not have a negative experience of donating), its highlight unlikely you too would have read this.

So in short, it is highly likely that donating makes you happy. So if you want to put a spring in your step, why not go make a donation… it will likely make you happier.

Join Our Community Newsletter

Looking to grow your personal impact? Get a monthly email about generosity in Aotearoa—learn about charities, ways to give and more.

Thank You! We will keep you up to date via email!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
We respect your privacy.