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Happiness Runs in a Circular Motion: Evidence for a Positive Feedback Loop between Prosocial Spending and Happiness

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We examine whether a positive feedback loop exists between spending money on others (i.e. prosocial spending) and happiness. Participants recalled a previous purchase made for either themselves or someone else and then reported their happiness. Afterward, participants chose whether to spend a monetary windfall on themselves or someone else. Participants assigned to recall a purchase made for someone else reported feeling significantly happier immediately after this recollection; most importantly, the happier participants felt, the more likely they were to choose to spend a windfall on someone else in the near future. Thus, by providing initial evidence for a positive feedback loop between prosocial spending and well-being, these data offer one potential path to sustainable happiness: prosocial spending increases happiness which in turn encourages prosocial spending.

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  1. Although this procedure was carefully designed to minimize social desirability concerns, it is conceivable that some participants who selected the prosocial spending option actually intended to spend the money on themselves. This possibility is unlikely given that previous work has shown that the majority of participants are quite willing to express a preference for spending money on themselves, even when social desirability concerns are higher (Dunn et al. 2008). In addition, research suggests that making an initial commitment to engage in prosocial behavior does lead to longer term prosocial behaviour (Nelson and Norton 2005).

  2. One additional limitation is that we did not measure individual difference in social value orientations and typologies (McClintock 1978; Van Lange et al. 1997). Given that participants were randomly assigned to conditions, it is unlikely that these individual differences account for our findings. That said, future research should examine how such variables interact with the feedback loop presented here.


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The authors would like to thank Jason Chin, Alyssa Croft, Kate Rogers, and Azim Shariff for helpful comments on an earlier draft.

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Correspondence to Lara B. Aknin.

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Aknin, L.B., Dunn, E.W. & Norton, M.I. Happiness Runs in a Circular Motion: Evidence for a Positive Feedback Loop between Prosocial Spending and Happiness. J Happiness Stud 13, 347–355 (2012).

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