It’s Christmas time which means money and giving. This season, I’m thinking that I’m spending my money wrong. Not wrong as in credit card debt or no savings (though we have done these too). Rather, wrong as in not spending money in ways that would make me happier.
Have you heard the expression that money can’t buy happiness? There is truth in it. But, it’s also wrong.
One of my favorite researchers, psychologist Elizabeth Dunn, did a clever study. She gave college students $20 each, and she told them to spend the money during the day. Some of the students were told to spend the money on themselves. Others were told to buy a gift for someone or to make a charitable donation.
Who was happier after spending the money? To find out, the researchers called each student that evening and asked survey questions about happiness and well-being. Lo and behold, the students who spent money on others, not themselves, were happiest.
Spending money on other people’s well-being often makes us happier than spending it on ourselves.
In my many laps around the calendar, why have I not figured this out?
I’ve seen glimpses of this principle at work. Several years ago, we went out to eat at a popular steakhouse. About halfway through our meal, we noticed an elderly woman with a boy, presumably her grandson. They looked like they had really hard lives. We flagged down our waitress and arranged to covertly pay this woman’s food bill. Afterward, our waitress said the woman was almost in tears, saying that good things like this “never happen to me.” The woman and child were happy. The waitress was happy. We were happy. It was a great meal.
And of course, during Christmas, we feel good giving presents to others.
So, why don’t I apply this principle to my life more fully?
A truly rational approach to happiness would include frequently spending money on other people’s well-being.
There are many things I do to feel better—exercise hard, sleep well, eat healthy food, wear comfortable clothes, etc. But, if I really want to be happy, I should also systematically and strategically spend money on other people as well.
My family and I donate money to our church and a couple of non-profits. That’s good. But, there’s a lot more that I could be doing.
These newsletters usually cover issues that I’ve worked through in my own life. They take the structure of “I had a problem,” “I have figured out a solution,” and “Here is how it works.”
This one is different. Here, I’m mid-process. Frankly, I worry that I’ll remember the facts of this but lose the compelling need to do something about it.
The logical starting point would be to start small. What if I set aside a small amount of money each month just to spend on other people’s well-being? This would develop the behavior as a habit, and it would help me to figure out how I like to do it best.
I suppose that this way of thinking about spending money fits with a larger philosophical perspective of virtue. At one point in my life, I thought of virtue as the opposite of feeling good. I can feel good or I can do the right thing. Now, however, I usually find myself thinking that I can feel good by doing the right thing. Perhaps virtue, at its core, is a right understanding what makes us feel best.