Tis the Season to Be Jolly…But How?

December 11, 2013 No Comments by Travis Jones

Tis the Season to Be Jolly…But How?Whether you are celebrating Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas or another cultural tradition, the holiday season is now fully upon us. At work it’s no exception. Holiday parties, secret Santa gift giving and office potlucks are probably in fully swing at your office. And deep beneath all of the decorations, parties, advertisements, and shopping are cultural traditions reminding us to also celebrate common human virtues.

The tradition of gift giving was originally meant to inspire and illustrate the human virtues of generosity and charity (ignore Black Friday pepper sprayings for the sake of this post). Despite all of the anxiety, financial stress, jealousy, and guilt that holiday gift giving can sometimes bring, there is still a remnant in the tradition that is a healthy reminder for us all; it is still better to give than receive.

Some of us are better gift givers than others. I’ll be the first to admit this is not my strong suit. If I pull your name at a secret Santa party, there’s no secret; you’re getting a gift card. But even a self-acclaimed Grinch like myself knows that the feeling of giving someone a gift that they’ll enjoy is valuable beyond money. But this sense of fulfillment that comes with being generous is not always natural. If it were, we wouldn’t need constant reminders, in the form of traditions or parental prompts to children to “share.” This is why holidays can be powerful signposts to the values that we all agree are worthy of moments of collective celebration.

There is research that proves empirically the benefits of giving. People around the world, with both modest and comfortable incomes, reported being happier when they spent money on others than on themselves. Most of the research can be summed up as a rebuttal to the cultural saying, “money can’t buy happiness.” According to many researchers, yes it can. If you haven’t already listened to the Ted talk, “Money Can Buy Happiness”, I encourage you to take ten minutes and fifty-eight seconds sometime and do so. In it, business psychologist Michael Norton gives a great summary of the research that illustrates through various experiments that people who give to others are happier. There are also several other surprising findings in the experiments like, it didn’t matter how much money participants spent, but that they spent is what caused their happiness.

The research is also compelling because of how wide and diverse their participant sample was, spanning countries as diverse as Canada, India, and South Africa. Given the uniformity of their findings across diverse cultural contexts, the researchers believe they have evidence of a deeply human trait of reciprocity.

In addition to measuring individual happiness, the researchers also ran several experiments on teams in organizational settings. In one experiment, two teams of pharmaceutical sales reps were given money to spend on themselves, or money to spend on their other team members respectively. The results showed that the giving team not only reported higher rates of happiness, but also out sold their non-giving colleagues by very large margins. So, as Norton argues, the amount of money the giving team made in extra sales was greater than the amount of money the researchers gave them initially, thus providing the business case for why giving is profitable.

Below are five core principles on spending money proposed by psychologists Michael Norton (mentioned above) and Elizabeth Dunn:

  • Buy experiences – like trips, concerts and special meals that inoculate against buyer’s remorse.
  • Make it a treat – making daily habits into special indulgences increases satisfaction.
  • Buy time – before making a purchase, ask yourself, “How will this change how I use my time?”
  • Pay now, consume later – paying up-front and delaying consumption maximizes the pleasure of anticipation and reduces debt.
  • Invest in others – spending money on others provides a bigger happiness boost than spending on oneself.

So if you are like me and enjoy reminders, especially evidence based ones, remember this holiday season that money actually can buy happiness; it all depends on how you spend it.

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