Consider giving in a different way this Christmas

Consider giving in a different way this Christmas

Our friends over at Happiness Works in the UK have asked us, and we've happily agreed, to share this great initiative they've set up based on the positive psychology principles of giving and how it enhances happiness for all…

by Nic Marcs

Christmas is coming. All round the world, children are eagerly anticipating the arrival of the big man himself – Santa Claus. And he is always big. A big, laughing, cheerful, old man with a large sack full of gifts, always chuckling and bellowing “Ho Ho Ho” to anyone in earshot. A jollier, happier image is hardly possible to imagine.

Of course all (good) children will be happy to receive their Christmas presents but why is Santa himself so happy?

Perhaps it is because he gets to give.

Well psychological research suggests that this is actually quite likely. Whilst I don’t think they quite have in mind Santa Claus, researchers have consistently found that people who are more “pro-social” with their spending are happier than those that more focused on personal spending.

One of my favourite pieces of research in this area used a nice simple experiment.1 At the start of the day participants were asked to rate their happiness. They were then given an envelope with some cash in it. Half of the envelopes had $5 in them, half had $20.

Next, the participants were split into two groups and given separate instructions. The first group were asked to spend the money in their envelope on themselves, while the second group were told to spend theirs on someone else. So the first group received a gift, while the second group gave one.

At the end of the day the participants were asked to rate their happiness again. The giving group were happier, while the receiving group were actually slightly less happy.2 Interestingly, the amount of money didn’t have any measurable effect.

There are two take home messages: giving is good for you, and size doesn’t matter!

But there was another stage to this neat little piece of research. The researchers set up a thought experiment with another group of participants. They asked them whether they thought they would be happier if they spent on themselves or on others – and if indeed the amount of money spent would matter. The group was doubly wrong – 63% of the group thought that receiving would be better than giving and 86% thought that more money would make them happier!

So there is third take home message: there is secret power in giving

So if you are celebrating Christmas at work this year, try playing Secret Santa. There’s more to it than meets the eye. We’ve created a simple tool to spread this message and help you run your Secret Santa: try it now!

Have fun and happy Christmas!

Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin and Michael Norton, “Spending money on others promotes happiness”, Science 319 (2008): 1687-1688.?

For those of a statistical bent the difference between the groups was tested with a between-subject ANCOVA and the result was statistically significant (p<0.04). For those who don’t like statistics just take my word that this means the difference means something!