Can money buy happiness?

This week’s column topic comes from my younger brother Dan Donatelli (no relation). Dan forwarded me a Reuters article entitled Money buys happiness – if you spend it on someone else. The headline is drawn from the conclusion reached by a group of researchers from the University of British Columbia (Go Thunderbirds!) and Harvard Business School (Go ThunderCaseMethods!)

According to the researchers, none of whom I’m guessing owns a Lamborghini Diablo, spending as little as $5 a day on someone else could significantly boost the giver’s happiness. Researchers asked 600 American volunteers to rate their happiness, report their income and detail their spending including bills, gifts for themselves, gifts for others and donations to charity.

“Regardless of how much income each person made, those who spent money on others reported greater happiness, while those who spent more on themselves did not,” said Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia whom I picture in my head as a bookish 30-something brunette who has been waiting her whole life to meet a man like me.

(Above: What Elizabeth Dunn looks like in my head. She bears a striking resemblence to actress Sabrina Lloyd.)

The researchers also surveyed 16 employees at a Boston company before and after they received a profit-sharing bonus between $3,000 and $8,000. Because I have only worked for old or failing media companies, I had to look up the term “profit-sharing bonus.” But before I could do that, I had to look up the term “profit.” But before I could do that, I had to change the rubber-band-wrapped Ziploc bags I wear in place of shoes.

For the record, profit-sharing bonuses are how companies reward workers when the company succeeds. And rubber-band-wrapped Ziploc bags are what a journalist wears when he’s being chased from a back-alley milk crate toilet by a pack of stray dogs.

In the journal Science the researchers wrote, “Employees who devoted more of their bonus to pro-social spending experienced greater happiness after receiving the bonus, and the manner in which they spent that bonus was a more important predictor of their happiness than the size of the bonus itself.”

In a third part of the study, the researchers also gave participants $5 or $20. Those who spent money on someone or something else reported feeling happier about it.

“These findings suggest that very minor alterations in spending allocations – as little as $5 – may be enough to produce real gains in happiness on a given day,” Dunn said, her eyeglasses no doubt perched at the tip of her button nose, her hair probably slightly disheveled from a long day of field research, the top button of her blouse most likely undone, offering a man a glimpse of heaven on earth.

The researchers concluded – and I agree – that when we freely spend money on other people or good causes, it makes us feel good.

All of which led me to a second study. (I promise this will all make sense in the end.)

In a Los Angeles Times article with the headline Study finds happiness lowest at mid-life, staff writer Denise Gellene writes about new research that found that “happiness over the course of a lifetime follows a universal curve in which the greatest bliss occurs at the beginning and end of life, while misery dominates middle age.”

The study was conducted by economists Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in England and David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College, both of whom probably had their shot at the lovely Elizabeth Dunn as undergrads and are now recklessly determined to sabotage our love. Their study, which was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, set out to look at the relationship between age and happiness.

The researchers found that in the United States happiness reached its lowest point around age 40 in women and age 50 in men. Researchers were perplexed by the results.

From the article:

Oswald said it was possible that in midlife people learn to accept their strengths and weaknesses and abandon unrealistic aspirations. Another possibility is that cheerful people live longer, driving the curve higher. Another explanation is that older people learn to count their blessings as their peers die, Oswald said. “It’s a mystery,” he said. “There seems to be something inside human beings that is unexplained by life events.”

My first thought was, “Fifty is the age when a man’s boner starts to fade, a problem that would affect both sexes.” But there are pills for that nowadays. So the theory doesn’t stick. This issue goes beyond boners.

God, I love writing.

Here’s my new theory. The young are happy because they’re young. It’s in their nature. The elderly are happy because – assuming they succeed financially, and most do – they can spend money on others, mainly in the form of rock candy. Spending on others is not the whole reason they’re happy, but as the first study concluded, it definitely counts.

Working people have less money to spend on doing good. April 23 was Tax Freedom Day, the theoretical day when you stop working for the government and start working for yourself. Much of your tax money is collected in the name of helping others. But under this arrangement, no one gets to feel good about it, with the possible exception of James Carville, whom I happen to believe is controlled by a smaller James Carville sitting at a tiny futuristic computer bank inside the main James Carville’s chest.

(Above: The smaller of the James Carvilles.)

The American philosopher Samuel Roy Hagar once said, “You’ve got to give to live.” In the U.S. today, the only people who can afford to “live” are the elderly. I can’t wait that long for the fetching Elizabeth Dunn and I to be happy.

Do you have a column idea? E-mail it to me at

(To hear Mike, Sean, guest Chris Mosier and me talk about this column on The Second Column podcast on iTunes, click here.)

Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles

    My love for Sabrina Lloyd knows no rational bounds. I just feel like everyone should know that.

  • Daniel

    Viva La Chris Mosier!


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