Do Unto Others
At The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, researchers have been digging further into the emotional link between money and community. In one frequently cited series of experiments, published in 2008 in the journal Science, they showed that choosing to spend on others trumps dropping cash on oneself.

In one experiment, employees who devoted a higher percentage of their corporate bonus to charity reported greater happiness. In another, participants were given $5 or $20 at the beginning of the day and assigned to either spend it on a personal gift or bill or on someone else. Those who gave the money away reported greater happiness at day’s end.

Our brains may actually be wired to reward altruism, according to another study that analyzed the brain images of 19 women. Their brains’ reward centers were similarly activated when the women gave money to a local charity, as when they received it themselves, says William Harbaugh, a study researcher and professor of economics at the University of Oregon. “You have to call this a good feeling that comes from charitable giving,” says Harbaugh, now involved in a larger study to see if the findings hold up.

Even so, “people do seem to mispredict the emotional benefits of spending on others,” says Lara Aknin, a Ph.D. student at The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and researcher who co-authored the Science paper. When 109 students were told about the study involving the $5 or $20 bills, they were surveyed to determine which spending approach they thought would achieve greater happiness. Nearly two-thirds, 69 students, chose spending on themselves.