The Science of Happy Giving Based on Elizabeth Dunn’s Research

By demonstrating gratitude and encouraging the happiness of another person, you’re likely to feel the warm and fuzzies, too.

At the center of Elizabeth Dunn’s most popular research is one question: 

“Are we happier when we give to ourselves or others?”

You may be able to guess the answer.

We’re happier when we give to others. 

But Dunn’s work is particularly poignant because she and her fellow researchers took this question a step further.

This was, in part, because Dunn noticed that her own feelings after giving were not matching up with the results of her research. And she couldn’t figure out why.

To assess what was going on, she and her colleagues sat down to figure out what other factors make giving inspire happiness. Because it didn’t appear to be the act of giving to others alone.

What they found out was perhaps not surprising once you hear it, but provides insight that few of us have probably consciously considered. 

Elizabeth Dunn’s Happiness Research

What Dunn found when she researched giving and happiness was that the giving had to be meaningful in order for the giver to feel that full rush of joy.

Because we’re human, making things meaningful unsurprisingly came down to pro-social behavior. When we give, we need either human interaction or an understanding about how our gift will directly benefit another person or a bigger cause in a positive way.

Gift Experiences

Gift Experiences

Gifting experiences is a great way to engage in pro-social giving. My sibling is an expert at this.

When the holidays come around, everyone gets an envelope with a sweet, heartfelt note inside. There may also be money or a gift card in there, but there’s always a line telling you where they’re going to take you. For example, my latest one read, 

“We’re going to that Turkish restaurant you’ve been talking about!”

My sibling gets more out of the joy of giving because part of the gift is their time and company. On top of that, they literally sat there and ate delicious food with me, allowing us to enjoy it together.

Joining in on the experience first-person isn’t always appropriate. For example, let’s say your niece has really been wanting to see Wicked. It’s coming to town, but you can only afford two tickets. You know her mom has been wanting to take her. Giving both tickets to them is the classier move. 

You can still engage in these experiential gifts, though. Ask them to send you photos of themselves at the event—let them know you want to see their outfits, their seats, everything! By catching up with them after the show, you’re still engaging in that pro-social behavior, enabling yourself to feel all the good vibes. 

Gifting Pro-Social Material Objects


Just because experiences tend to provide more long-term joy than material objects doesn’t mean that material objects are out of the question. If you gift someone a shirt, seeing them wear it afterward may bring you a shot of joy. You might give your kids a board game and then spend time playing it with them.

The more you engage or observe them engaging with the gift, the more likely you are to feel good about giving it.

How to Make Cash Donations Meaningful

Twenty Dollar Bill 1

Dunn’s work also looked at cash donations. Why do some people feel awesome when they give to charity, while others just feel kind of meh?

It turns out, the more the giver can envision exactly how the gift will be used, the better. For example, if you give $55 to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), you’ve given them $55. You’ll get a receipt for that charitable donation deduction on your taxes — which you can’t claim, anyway, because you’re not rich.

Or, you could adopt a polar bear for $55. You’ll get a stuffed animal, photograph, adoption certificate and more.

Now, once you’re on this landing page you can forgo your gifts to save WWF overhead costs, ensuring more of your money goes towards helping that adorable and endangered polar bear. But by giving you an idea of where your money is going, WWF is upping the neurological rewards for its donors.

Being a Grateful Recipient

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Let’s be perfectly clear: Giving with the expectation of a dopamine rush is shallow and petty. 

But as a grateful recipient, you may have noticed that there are several actions you can take to reinforce the giving spirit.

When you receive that Red Robin gift card, invite the giver to come with you. If they specifically gave it to you for a date night, be sure to snap a couple of photos while you’re at dinner and send them along with your thanks.

If you receive an item of clothing, make a point to wear it around that person. If you receive a decorative item, display it somewhere. If it’s somewhere the giver wouldn’t usually see, make a point to invite them to see what you’ve done with it. 

As humans, we’re social creatures. By demonstrating gratitude and encouraging the happiness of another person, you’re likely to feel the warm and fuzzies, too.

By demonstrating gratitude and encouraging the happiness of another person, you’re likely to feel the warm and fuzzies, too.

Brynne Conroy

Brynne Conroy

Motivation for women in business & on the homefront. Smart money management for success & true wealth. Author of The Feminist Financial Handbook.

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