The secret to buying happiness unlocked

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2008, 12:00am

Americans are irrepressible spenders while Chinese are prodigious savers. So most economists would have us believe. But if a new study is anything to go by, neither lifestyle is conducive to making them happy. People can buy their way to happiness, according to University of British Columbia psychologist Elizabeth Dunn and her research team, but this primarily involves spending on others - in particular, donating to social causes to which they are committed. So neither rampant consumerism nor austerity would make people happy.

The findings, published in the weekly journal Science, may go some way towards explaining why the world's richest men, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, plan on giving their fortunes away. After giving billions to charities and educational institutions, and with plenty more on the way, Hong Kong's very own Li Ka-shing and Lee Shau-kee may have found their own short cut to happiness.

Indeed, once basic needs have been taken care of, accumulating more wealth does not necessarily give rise to corresponding happiness. People who find fame and fortune are frequently the unhappiest people around - some to the point of being suicidal. Misers, by definition, are never happy. Yet we persist in our obsession with wealth and making money. Essentially, money is always something to have more of and, we assume, the more the merrier. This encourages egoism and possessiveness. Hence, giving money away - however laudable - is seen as something unusual in our society. Yet the results of a survey by Professor Dunn of volunteers show that giving even just a little money to a good cause makes the giver happy for a day.

It is, perhaps, a sad commentary on our lack of understanding about how to be happy that we need professional psychologists to research it. Giving and helping out have a direct correlation with happiness. But we should not be indiscriminate, either. Donating to causes we believe in helps us to assign priorities to our commitments. We are, in our core, social animals who care about our fellow men and women, not possessive egoists who care only about themselves.