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How to buy happiness

By Michael Norton and Elizabeth Dunn, Special to CNN
updated 9:26 AM EDT, Sun July 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Authors: People fantasize about going on a buying spree if they win lottery
  • The reality is that buying more stuff doesn't maximize happiness
  • Their research shows that giving things to others is more likely to make us happy

Editor's note: Michael Norton is an associate professor at Harvard Business School. Elizabeth Dunn is a professor at the University of British Columbia. They are co-authors of the forthcoming book, "Happy Money: The Science of Spending" (Simon & Schuster). Norton spoke at TEDxCambridge. TED is a nonprofit organization dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- What would you do if the world handed you a million dollars right now? Maybe you received an inheritance, maybe you won the lottery, maybe you found a briefcase by the side of the road filled with unmarked bills.

Our guess is that many of the first things that come to mind involve driving to a store, or going online, and buying stuff. And not just some stuff -- a lot of stuff. Very expensive stuff. As soon as we start thinking about money, we can't help but start thinking about all the lovely things we'd buy for ourselves with the money.

There's nothing wrong with buying things for yourself. The problem is that there isn't much right with doing this, either. Many of the major purchases that we make -- like fancy cars and big houses -- don't really make us much happier. When you use your money to buy stuff for yourself, you're leaving happiness on the table.

Michael Norton
Michael Norton
Elizabeth Dunn
Elizabeth Dunn

But there's a solution: Give it away. Perhaps when you thought about what you'd do with a million bucks, a tiny voice in the back of your head meekly said, "And I'd give some to charity" -- before being drowned out by a cacophony of desires to refurnish your house and reinvigorate your wardrobe.

TED.com: The antidote to apathy

Our research conducted over the last decade suggests that you should listen more closely, and more often, to that little voice. Why? Because giving your money to others instead of spending it on yourself provides a bigger happiness bang for your buck.

In one experiment, we gave people $5 in the morning and told them to spend it by that evening -- either on something for themselves, or something for someone else.

When we called them that evening, those who spent on themselves were just as happy as they were before getting the cash.

Those who spent it on others? They bought presents for family members, or gave money to the homeless -- and were happier than those who spent on themselves. We see this pattern time and time again, nearly everywhere we've looked in the world, in countries ranging from Canada to Uganda to India to South Africa: Spending money on other people is linked to happiness.

TED.com: 7 rules for making more happiness

It doesn't take a lot of giving to get a lot of happiness. The benefits of giving can be had for mere dollars a day. So although we can't all take Warren Buffett's "millionaire's pledge" -- where the richest of the rich pledge to give away at least 50% of their wealth -- we can commit to giving more to others than we do now.

Is there anything in your everyday life that costs $5 that you might be able to sacrifice just once a week? You might be holding a cup of it in your hand right now: coffee.

Next time you're craving that caffeine fix, think about subbing in the needs of another person for your mocha cookie-crumble frappuccino. You'll miss the coffee a little bit, sure -- but the payoffs for your overall happiness make it worth it.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

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