Lara B. Aknin (Simon Fraser University)
Elizabeth W. Dunn (University of British Columbia)
Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.
To help students: (1) learn about cutting edge research on the emotional consequences of spending choices, (2) experience an in-class experiment and discuss experimental design features, and (3) consider how generosity can help the benefactor as well as the recipient.
This classroom activity offers a vivid and memorable way to demonstrate an important lesson from recent research on the psychology of happiness: that spending money on others often leads to greater happiness than spending money on oneself. Indeed, even the act of reflecting on a prosocial spending leads to greater happiness than thinking about spending the same amount of money on oneself. To illustrate this finding, the instructor gives students one of two handouts: a blue sheet that asks students to describe the last time they spent approximately $20 on themselves, or a yellow sheet that asks them to describe the last time they spent the same amount on someone else. In both cases, the sheet ends by asking students to rate their current happiness on a 9-point scale. Then, once students have completed the writing assignment and rating, they're asked to crumple the sheet into a ball and throw it at one of three signs in the front of the classroom corresponding to the rating they gave: 1-3 (a relatively low level of happiness), 4-6 (medium happiness), or 7-9 (high happiness). The most common result is that the 7-9 sign draws more yellow balls than blue balls, which sets up a discussion of how helping others can, in turn, help oneself.
Background and Rationale
Can money buy happiness? The complex relationship between income and happiness has fascinated scholars from various disciplines for decades. While hundreds of correlational studies reveal a small but significant relationship between income and happiness, new research indicates that how people choose to spend their money may be at least as important for their well-being as how much they earn. In fact, new evidence suggests that engaging in generous "prosocial spending" on others leads to higher levels of happiness than spending the same amount of money on oneself. Even simply reflecting upon a generous spending choice leads to greater happiness than thinking about spending the same amount on oneself. The following classroom activity, based on this research, allows students to reflect upon a previous instance of spending to explore what types of purchases have the largest emotional rewards.
Description of the Activity
This classroom activity was designed to bring new research on happiness into the classroom. To prepare for the activity, instructors should print two handouts before class. One should ask students to describe in as much detail as possible the last time they spent approximately twenty dollars on themselves, providing enough space for students to write at least half a page. The handout should end with a question assessing the student's current level of happiness:
Please take the next 5-10 minutes to recall and describe in as much detail as possible the last time you spent approximately twenty dollars ($20) on yourself.
How happy are you feeling right now? Circle a response.
Not at all
Not at all 1–2–3–4–5–6–7–8–9 Extremely
The second handout should be identical except that the recollection prompt invites students to recall and describe in as much detail as possible the last time they spent approximately twenty dollars on someone else:
Please take the next 5-10 minutes to recall and describe in as much detail as possible the last time you spent approximately twenty dollars ($20) on someone else.
How happy are you feeling right now? Circle a response.
Not at all
Not at all 1–2–3–4–5–6–7–8–9 Extremely
Each version of the handout should be printed on a unique colored paper (e.g., memories of spending on oneself should be on blue paper and memories of spending on others should be on yellow paper), and each student should only receive one version of the handout. For example, a class with 40 students would require 20 copies of each version of the handout. These 40 handouts should be intermixed to mimic random assignment such that any student could receive either version of the handout. Instructors should also prepare three clearly labeled signs; one sign should read "1-3," another should read "4-6," and the last should read "7-9." Signs should use clear dark font on letter size (8.5"x11") paper.
In class, instructors should distribute one handout to each student and allow 5-10 minutes for students to describe their spending memory. Once students have described their experience, they should report their current well-being using the happiness question. While students complete these activities, the instructor should place the three signs (labeled "1-3," "4-6," and "7-9") at the front of the classroom in ascending order to represent values of low, mid-range, and high happiness scores.
After all students complete the handout, instructors may wish to "analyze the data." One engaging way to evaluate your students' responses without embarrassing any student with a low happiness score is to request that students crumple up their handout into a paper ball and throw it toward the sign that corresponds to their happiness score. To test whether reflecting upon acts of generous spending leads to more happiness than reflecting upon acts of self-spending, students and the instructor can count the number of paper balls near the high happiness sign. For example, research suggests that if memories of spending on oneself are on blue paper and memories of spending on someone else are on yellow paper, there will be more yellow balls than blue balls near the "7-9" sign.
In addition to providing a clear demonstration of new research, this activity also prompts a lively discussion on the relationship between money and happiness, how one can spend their money to achieve happiness, how psychologists measure happiness, and methodological issues more broadly. For instance, an instructor may ask students to consider whether generosity leads to happiness in other contexts of giving, such as volunteering one's time to a worthy cause. Alternatively, instructors may wish to ask if any students are willing to share their spending experience to see whether others have had a similar experience. Instructors may also encourage students to think about times when generous spending backfired or to consider potential confounds of the research design.
This classroom activity represents an action teaching approach to the topic because it vividly and memorably demonstrates the emotional rewards of prosocial behavior. After completing the activity and discussing the relevant research (e.g., Dunn, Aknin, & Norton, 2008), students come to understand how helping others can, in turn, help oneself -- a lesson that may inspire students to engage in more frequent acts of generosity, increasing their own happiness and benefitting others.
This activity has been used successfully in both large and small classrooms (e.g., large Social Psychology classes and small research discussion groups). Although its effectiveness has not been formally assessed, students often express very positive reactions by reflecting deeply on a recent spending experience, participating in the larger class discussion, and conveying their excitement about the activity to the instructor after class. The reasons for this enthusiasm are at least threefold. First, many students enjoy the opportunity to reflect upon their own experiences and see how their experiences mesh with recent research. Second, students enjoy the physical act of throwing their paper ball to the front of the classroom. Finally, students find the discussion of money and happiness to be an interesting and relevant topic.
Here are a few student comments on the activity:
- "I thought this was a fun way to engage the room."
- "I liked the visual effect as information sticks better in my head when it's visual and then explained. I liked it! I can see students talking about this demo with their friends."
- "I think this teaching demonstration is interesting and engaging. It gives students a chance to visually see the results of the 'giving hypothesis' right away."
Tips on Implementation
We have found it helpful for instructors to circulate around the classroom while students are writing their spending memories to ensure that students remain on track. Although most students easily identify a specific spending experience, some students struggle doing so. Often a brief discussion with the instructor can guide students to a relevant memory.
It is also helpful to include a large amount of space for students to adequately describe their spending experience in detail. The more detail students can provide, the more memorable the demonstration will be. We recommend providing students with half of a standard size page to describe their spending memory.
This activity has been used in small groups with as few as ten students, but a larger class size is preferable to avoid idiosyncratic or extreme scores. Even with large classes, the activity may not reveal the predicted outcome. If this happens, the instructor can use this opportunity to ask students what research design issues may have contributed to the present findings. For instance, instructors can ask whether a larger sample may have been more representative, whether the happiness scores may have been imprecise (e.g., some paper balls may have been knocked off course in the air), or whether the happiness scores reflect a ceiling effect.
Pitfalls to Avoid
Students are often excited to describe a spending memory but may shy away from doing so if their classmates are in close proximity and watching as they write. To avoid this reluctance, we recommend encouraging students to spread out around the classroom and find their own writing space.
To encourage candor, it's also best to make responses to the handout anonymous. If an instructor wishes to read a few examples of students' expenditures, students should be warned in advance not to describe a spending experience that they want to keep private.
If preparing handouts on colored paper is not feasible, instructors may wish to vary the activity by providing the handout to students through email before class. A class list could be randomly divided into the two conditions so that each student is emailed one version of the handout before class. Students could complete the spending recollection exercise and happiness rating at home and then email their responses to the instructor before class so that the instructor can calculate average happiness ratings for each group. Instructors may also wish to ask students whether their spending experience could be shared anonymously with the class to prompt discussion.
Another potential variation of this classroom activity is to ask students to recall an instance when they spent time rather than money. Thus, two handouts might ask students to recall a time they spent approximately 20 minutes helping themselves or someone else and then include a 1-item happiness question.
If desired, this activity could be used to inspire a larger scale activity in which students spend a small amount of money, such as $5, on themselves and others (on separate days) and report their happiness. Students could be encouraged to take note of their spending experience and happiness in a "spending journal" on both days. The entire class could then pool its data to compare the emotional rewards of generous and self-spending.
Aknin, L. B., Barrington-Leigh, C. P., Dunn, E. W., Helliwell, J. F., Burns, J., Biswas-Diener, R., Kemeza, I., Nyende, P., Ashton-James, C. E., & Norton, M. I. (2013). Prosocial spending and well-being: Cross-cultural evidence for a psychological universal (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(4), 635-652.
Aknin, L. B., Hamlin, J. K., & Dunn, E. W. (2012). Giving leads to happiness in young children. PLoS ONE, 7(6), e39211.
Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319, 1687-1688.
Dunn, E. W., & Norton, M. I. (2013). Happy money: The science of smarter spending. New York: Simon & Schuster.