Study findings suggest using your money to buy for others brings delight

Study Snapshot

Michael Norton, Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, studied the longstanding question — can money buy you happiness?Turns out the answer is yes, particularly when you buy for other people.

In a TED Talk, a short video presentation to spread ideas of thought-leaders today, Norton said: “I am here today to talk to you about money and happiness which are two things that we spend a lot of our time thinking about either trying to earn them or trying to increase them. We resonate with this phrase that is found in religions and self-help books: money can’t buy you happiness. I wanted to let you know today that statement is wrong and, in fact, if you think that, then you just aren’t spending it right.”

In one experiment, Norton gave college undergrads money to spend on themselves or on others. They received either $5 or $20.

Some of Norton’s work is published in the HBS Working Knowledge archive. In one experiment, those who spent money on themselves didn’t feel any different while those who spent money on others felt a lot happier.
Norton also discussed money and coffee, “If you give an undergrad $5, it looks like coffee to them and they run over to Starbucks and spend it as fast as they can,” he joked.

With coffee, money, and happiness at play, the Calgary Journal recently visited a coffee shop to chat with people about Norton’s findings.

Calgarians discuss money and happiness
In a Kensington coffee shop, we caught up with some coffee aficionados about happiness-inducing scenarios.

To buy or not to buy for others. Two friends weigh in.

John Arcurri and Callie ReidulffJohn Arcurri and Callie Reidulff sit together and enjoy a cup of coffee.

Photo credit: Kaity Brown

Q: Would you rather buy yourself a coffee or someone else a coffee?

John: I have gone through a lot of life changes and I think this new self-discovery that I am on makes me think that I do feel better about myself when I buy for others. If we were here, I would buy you the coffee. I feel that when you put that little piece of good karma out there, something in the universe will come back to you and it will reward you. It gives you that little piece of happiness.

Callie: I don’t think that I have ever just randomly bought a stranger coffee. I have often thought about it though. But definitely if I go out with a friend I would buy them a coffee as a gift because we all love in different ways and one of the ways that I give love is through gifts so I think I would.

Q: To what extent do you think giving increases your happiness?

Callie: I think that it comes down to the way that you give and receive love. I don’t know if you have ever heard of the (book) The 5 Love Languages. So some people give love through gifts so it is just a sense of an offering to someone and it is your gift to them and it is representing that. You are just giving them your love.

John: I am more tangible. I really like the reaction that you can get. It can just change someone’s perspective. I think that we are all so focused on ourselves, so the moment that you can take away from yourself and give to someone else it changes your perspective. That one little moment of happiness you have given to someone, it catches on and then you want to do it again. I feel great.

Q: Can you think of a specific time that you gave something to someone and it made you happy?

John: It was my grandma’s 80th birthday and she was kind of a role model that you want to follow, and she taught me so much about my life. I thought that I would give her a gift of wisdom that she taught me. It made me look inwards and find stuff that had sentimental values, or just changed the way that different things represented things that she taught me. One of those things was that tea can heal anything, it can teach you something — it is a moment of reflection and it can help you grow. I kind of put that together and I got her some tea cups and some tea, and when I put the gift together it was very emotional. Even though it was just the exchanging of a gift, it was powerful.

Callie: For me, an example would be that I made a box of chocolates for my boyfriend who is allergic to a lot of things. A box of chocolates is something kind of easy that a lot of people give but he can’t have that because of his allergies. I took the time to figure out what chocolates he would like and I made the chocolates myself and a little box. To see the joy on his face and the time that I had spent — it was really rewarding.

Laura Bysouth and Cody Jennings enjoy a beverage together, while discussing what makes them happy.

Photo credit: Kaity BrownLaura Bysouth and Cody Jennings

Q: Would you rather buy yourself a coffee or someone else a coffee?

Cody: I would buy a coffee for her (gesturing to Laura Bysouth). But a coffee is a coffee. I don’t complicate my life. If I had to choose I would say, “Screw you, I’m drinking this coffee.”

Laura: If I was forced to choose I would probably choose someone else. It would make them happy.

Q: To what extend do you think giving increases your happiness?

Cody: Giving is all about mindset. Whether you just want to make an impact on someone’s life and you’re just doing it because they are a person too, it is all about where you are coming from and why you are doing it, or even if you need a reason to do it. Generosity is generosity. It is about being a good person. But then again there is a difference between giving a homeless man $20 and going out with my girlfriend for coffee.

Laura: It is all perspective. It is how you give and not necessarily what it is but how you give of yourself. If you give from your heart and you have good intentions about what you want that money or that gift to do then it will make you a lot happier.

Q: Can you think of a specific time that you gave something to someone and it made you happy?

Cody: It was when I gave my mom a kitten. It ran away, but she loved the cat. When you give something to someone that they will actually love and cherish, that feeling gets reverted back to you. It reflects on you too. Happy is happy. Every one of us is human and we do have that selfishness, but there is a difference between how much generosity you want to give.

Laura: There was this one time that I made my grandma a blanket. She still has it and she loves it. She tells me all the time how it is really warm in the winter and not too hot in the summer. It just makes me happy to hear that she is enjoying it.

Tom Hubschmid and Colton Dyck stand and share a time when they’ve purchased for others, and how that made them feel.

Photo credit: Kaity BrownTom Hubschmid and Colton Dyck

Q: Would you rather buy yourself a coffee or someone else a coffee?

Tom: Do you require honesty? (laughs) I would keep it for myself. The scenario that I had in mind was that I would come into this coffee shop wanting to get a coffee for myself, probably because I was depressed and wanted to be happier.

Colton: Coffee? I don’t like coffee so I would give it away.

Q: To what extent do you think giving increases your happiness?

Colton: It’s what we are made to do. Not to hoard things, but to be yearning to give things away. We are so much happier when we are doing the things that we are meant to do.

Tom: I am excited and giddy when I have bought a gift for somebody, like buying a friend a coffee or lunch when we go out. It’s good for the soul. I think I feel a little more human when I do it. Like I am a part of something bigger in the world.

Q: Can you think of a specific time that you gave something to someone and it made you happy?

Tom: I once bought my friend a miniature chess board from Ten Thousand Villages that she mentioned that she really wanted but couldn’t afford. I bought it for her birthday and I remember taking it home with me on the bus and just smiling. I was really excited that I had bought this thing for my friend.

Colton: It is hard to choose. But it was about a year ago and we had just finished watching Band of Brothers and it was the intermission. We were standing at a gas station and there was a guy standing there, and I just felt Jesus tell me that I was supposed to pay for his gas. So I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he was buying gas and he said, “Yeah.” Then I said “Can I pay for your gas?” and his brain exploded. He was like, ‘What if I had a huge truck?” and I said, “I didn’t ask what kind of vehicle you had. I just asked if I could pay for your gas.” So then I paid for his gas and a pack of gum that he wanted. It’s just money.

Editor’s note: Some answers edited for length and clarity.