The Gift of Giving

Once again, someone in the halls of academe has tried the old “Spend 20 Bucks Test.” I don’t know why they keep doing it. I guess it’s that old suspicion that the last scientist didn’t do it quite right, and we’re going to come up with the definitive data. Or maybe it’s an arcane Christmas ritual.

What’s the “Spend 20 Bucks Test?”

The setup is simple. You give your guinea pigs $20 each. For one half, you tell them to spend it on themselves. The others, you tell them to spend it on someone else. Piece of cake.

Now comes the difficult part. Once they have finished, you ask them a bunch of questions to figure out how happy they are.

Now, disregarding the fastidious scientist-types who insist that happiness is too subjective to quantify, and curmudgeons who will tell you that “you aren’t really happy, you just think you are,” the results of these tests are always the same. Spending money on other people makes you happier. And Merry Christmas to all of you scientists, too.

Not only that, but other tests have indicated that people with less money are more generous, charitable, trusting, and helpful than their richer counterparts.

And the most prominent social observers of the last generation tell us that money “Can’t Buy Me Love.”

Might we be forgiven in combining these concepts to suggest that being rich doesn’t make you happy? I certainly hope so, since I see no prospects of a fiscally created depression in the near future. (And when you’re my age, the near future is pretty well the only one you’ve got.)

The Flip Side

Of course, the curmudgeons might point out that if the generous, charitable, etc. people are poor, maybe it’s because those very qualities are the factors that keep them that way.

And the “Can’t Buy Me Love” song is mostly made up of things the young man is offering to give the girl to make her love him. Which is exactly the opposite of what the chorus says.

The Bottom Line

But the fact remains that an act that you do for your own benefit stays right there. An act you do for someone else’s weal keeps on going. Humans are herd or pack animals, hardwired to act in ways that are beneficial to the tribe.

Thus being selfish goes against basic human nature. No wonder all those rich people look so glum.

But What if it Isn’t True?

Unfortunately, even if there is some kind of causal effect between being rich and being happy, very few of us are ever given a clear choice in that department. So we make our choice in general terms. Some people go for financial success, hoping that the happiness will come along. Some people go for the happiness and hope that they’ll make enough money along the way to survive.

But Once a Year…

There’s the Christmas season, where everybody comes together. The poor and happy people who give all the time anyway get even happier. The rich people have enough money to give a bunch and feel good for at least a couple of days.

So, Merry Christmas, everyone, and here’s hoping that the New Year will be generous as well.




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