Markham Heid, Medically Reviewed by Danielle Murphy, LCSW

Spending on others can boost feelings of connectedness and happiness, and it may help reduce stress and inflammation in the body...

They say money can’t buy happiness. But if you spend it wisely, maybe it can.

                Evidence suggests that prosocial spending—loosely defined as spending money on other people, rather than on yourself (charitable giving is an example of it)—can boost your emotional well-being and provide other health benefits. 

                Research shows, for example, that spending money on charities was linked with increased levels of happiness, while money spent on personal expenses or new stuff had no effect on a person’s happiness levels.

                There’s a significant amount of data that shows that giving benefits our emotional well-being, says Elizabeth Dunn, PhD, first author of the Science study and a professor in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Other research from Dunn’s group concludes that prosocial spending is linked to boosted happiness, mood, and life satisfaction in diverse samples of people, she says (a review article published in 2020 in the journal Advances in Experimental Social Psychology outlines the evidence).

                “One of the best parts of being human is that we have evolved to find joy in helping others,” Dunn says.

                Here’s more on when and why giving to others can be so good for you.

What Is Charitable Giving? You could narrowly define charitable giving as the money you donate to a licensed nonprofit organization. But experts often broaden that definition to include any use of your financial resources for the benefit of other people, according to the review article in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. That includes money you spend on friends and family members — but also on strangers.

                Some examples of prosocial spending that turn up in published research include buying coffee or lunch for a friend, buying a bike helmet for a niece or nephew, or donating money to help someone in need, according to the same review.

                And it’s worth noting that the benefit you get isn’t linked to the amount you give, or to whether you’re wealthy or in need of some financial help yourself. The research consistently shows that prosocial or charitable spending tends to do you good.

Why Does Giving Money Away Make Us Feel So Good? – When you stop and think about it, it’s odd that giving away money would make someone feel good (when they could otherwise use that money to benefit themselves). Why is this so?

                “Prosocial acts may be emotionally rewarding because they reinforce costly but evolutionarily important actions that help us build and create bonds with other people,” says Lara Aknin, PhD, a distinguished associate professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

                Aknin heads Simon Fraser’s Helping and Happiness Lab, and she has published more than a dozen papers on prosocial spending. Her work is part of a broader theory in social and evolutionary psychology that suggests that human beings may be hardwired for altruism and prosocial behavior because those tendencies massively benefit our species, according to a report on the topic published in 2015, the International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

                Put simply, humans have thrived because — unlike nearly all other animals — we can come together to form large, interdependent groups of unrelated members, according to these evolutionary psychology theories, as described in the 2015 report. And there is strength in numbers. If helping other people didn’t feel good, it’s arguable that we would never have been able to form the tribes and later the societies that are the building blocks of prosperous civilizations.

                So, along with charitable giving being good for the societies that we are a part of, how does it benefit our own health and well-being?

How Does Charitable Giving Benefit Health and Well-Being? – Giving money away to others may in some cases matter more than how much you make. According to research, donating money to charity increased people’s levels of well-being to about the same extent even when people’s incomes doubled.

                Meanwhile, the 2019 World Happiness Report, which collected charitable giving and well-being data from around the world, found that even after controlling for wealth and other measures of prosperity, donating money is one of the six strongest predictors of life satisfaction — none of which are directly linked to income. The report was published by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network and includes data collected by the Gallup World Poll and Lloyd’s Register Foundation.

                Apart from the happiness bump, there’s evidence that people who spend money on others reap physical health benefits, too.

                Research published in 2016 in the journal Health Psychology found that three weeks of charitable spending was enough to lower blood pressure scores among a group of older adults. In fact, the research found that the blood pressure improvements caused by prosocial spending were similar to those associated with taking up a new exercise routine.

                Other research, published in January 2021 in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, found that prosocial behaviors may reduce stress and inflammation, both of which can cause or worsen a range of mental and physical health conditions. More work has found that prosocial behaviors are linked with shifts in the expression of our genes, in ways that can improve overall health, according to a paper published in 2017 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

How to Give in Ways That Benefit You and Your Well-Being, Too – While there are numerous benefits to prosocial spending and charitable giving, simply writing a check out to a “good” cause may not confer all of the same benefits as giving to a cause that specifically holds meaning for you.

                There is some evidence that giving solely to boost one’s own well-being — what could be described as selfish prosocial spending — doesn’t result in the same health or well-being benefits, Aknin explains.

                Citing a research paper published in October 2017 in the journal Motivation and Emotion, she says, “We found some evidence that prosocial acts are less rewarding when enacted for self-gain than when enacted for the benefit of others.”

                So, how can you give in a way that is good for the recipient and for you?

1. Give to Causes You Care About – There are hundreds of worthy charitable causes out there. But experts say that people seem to get the most out of giving to causes that are personally meaningful.

                “Prosocial spending is immensely personal,” Dunn says. “The decision for prosocial spending should be made freely and is not something that should be pushed by a friend, family member, or coworker.”

                Put another way, if you’re giving money to a cause because your boss encourages it, or because a family member asked you to, it’s less likely to provide the same rewards or level of gratification as giving to a cause that you chose and find meaningful.

2. Give in Ways That Let You See the Impact of Your Gift – A gift will likely mean more if you can see the impact of it, Aknin says. An example might be donating to a local charity or organization, where you can see those dollars being spent on new services or resources in your community.

                “The key is to find opportunities for prosocial spending that let you see how your generosity is impacting a cause you care about,” Dunn says.

3. Give to Causes You’re Socially Connected To – An optimal charitable gift should involve some kind of social connection, Dunn says.

                Dunn’s research has also found that the forms of prosocial spending that are most beneficial to the giver satisfy three fundamental human needs. These are autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

                Autonomy has to do with giving to causes that you have chosen yourself, rather than ones you feel pressured into supporting.

                Competence has to do with you seeing the impact of your gift.

                And relatedness means that the charitable gift enhances feelings of social bonds or connections. Giving to a community you are a part of is an example of this, as is giving to a project or initiative that a close friend is involved with. Your gift not only benefits that cause but is also meaningful to that friend.

                Whether you can give a little or a lot, the decision to spend money on others is one that seems to pay meaningful dividends.

                Editor’s Note: Parkinson’s Resource Organization invites you to give to PRO so that no one is isolated because of Parkinson’s. Among other ways, we continue to build our Support Group connections, our online Resource Directory, The Wellness Village, publish current and valuable information in our monthly Newsworthy Notes and our Blog, and extend an olive branch to those in need of emotional and educational support through our one-on-one coaching sessions.

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Updated: August 16, 2017