Literature Review: Prosocial Behavior Induces Happiness

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In this literature review I am going to write about three articles which deal with how or rather on whom one should spend his or her money to maximize the happiness one receives from spending it. It is a topic which I think is rather interesting and not widespread enough among the population. In my opinion combining these resources allows for a more complete picture on the common goal of all of these articles, namely helping people lead a fulfilling and happy life, thus the question I am going to answer is about how a person should use his or her resources to gain the most happiness.


The first article to be analyzed is “Spending money on others promotes happiness” by Dunn, Aknin, and Norton (2008). In this article they suggest that money can act as a tool to facilitate activities which have a positive effect and investigate the association between spending money on others and happiness in more detail.

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In order to test their hypothesis they first conducted a correlational study with 632 participants of American origin. In said study they asked the participants to rate their happiness while also giving an estimate of the money they spend per month on various kinds of expenses, which were then split up into personal spending or prosocial spending. A regression for happiness failed to find an association between personal spending and happiness, but succeeded in finding a significant one for prosocial spending and happiness. A follow-up longitudinal study with 16 employees who received an bonus managed to establish causality. In that study the employees where asked as to their happiness 1 month before and six to eight weeks after they received the bonus. The participants were asked on what kind of activity they spent their bonus on, which was once again split into personal and prosocial before a regression for happiness was applied. The research showed that prosocial spending was the only predictor for happiness at the second measure. After these studies, Dunn et al. (2008) conducted an experiment of factorial design. Participants were first asked to rate their happiness before being randomly assigned to have either five or 20 dollar which, depending on the condition they were in, they should use either for personal or prosocial activities during the day. At the end of the experiment they were asked to rate their happiness once again. The only significant result regarding happiness found was the main effect of prosocial spending. Of note is that when asked, the participants on average claimed that being assigned to the 20 dollar and personal spending conditions would make them the happiest, but the data showed no support for this claim.

The work of Dunn et al. (2008) shows that spending money on prosocial activities instead of personal ones increases happiness regardless of amount, but it seems like most people are unaware of this effect. Nonetheless this is an interesting fact which can improve one’s personal life, but there are more factors which influence the happiness received by prosocial spending, thus we shall take a look at the next paper which deals in maximizing the effects of social spending on happiness.

In 2011, Aknin, Sandstrom, Dunn, and Norton published a paper by the name: “It’s the recipient that counts: Spending money on strong social ties leads to greater happiness than spending on weak social ties”.

Aknin et al. (2011) start by presenting past findings which state that spending money on prosocial activities and spending time with others both increase happiness, while people also enjoy being in the presence of strong social ties. These statements lead to their research question: Is there a difference in happiness between spending money on a weak social tie and a strong social tie?

To test their research question they conducted an experiment with 80 participants, 79 of which gave valid answers, randomly selected from the campus of the University of Columbia. These participants were randomly assigned to a strong social tie or weak social tie condition. The participants were then asked to think about the last time they spent around 20 dollars for a person, who depending on the condition the participant was in was either a strong tie or a weak tie. After accomplishing the task the participants reported their affect levels on the positive and negative affect schedule (PANAS), where one of the positive affect prompts was replaced by happiness. The data supported the hypothesis of the researchers, that spending money on strong ties produces more happiness, even when they controlled for the time differences between each sample.

This paper shows that investing money in close friends and family has a higher payoff in happiness. The researchers speculate that it may be due to these actions being evolutionary adaptive, but they also advice the reader to still invest in weak ties.

As the two prior papers have already established, helping others makes one happy, but does happiness also increase the likelihood of helping others? This question is one of the foci of the third and last paper of this literature review, “The Reciprocity of Prosocial Behaviour and Positive Affect in Daily Life” by Snippe et al. (2017).

Snippe et al. (2017) commence their paper by stating that prosocial behavior is typical for humans and bring up different theories as to why before going into the mood-maintenance theory. They then express their desire to explore the relationship between prosocial behavior and positive affects. They furthermore are also interested in how personality traits affect the results, in this case extroversion and neuroticism specifically.

The study itself was a time series design with 629 participants which went on for one month during which the participants were encouraged to produce data three times a day. The positive affect was measured with 6 items from the circumplex model of affect, which were then averaged on a scale from zero to 100. Similarly prosocial behavior was also measured in a zero to 100 scale. The researchers checked if both the within person correlation and variability between scores were satisfactory and got positive results. They also offered a Neo five factor inventory personality test to gauge extroversion and neuroticism. To counteract possible confounds they also included variables which weren’t directly related to the study. After the study concluded Snippe et al. (2017) checked if positive affects predicted prosocial behavior and vice versa, while also checking for moderation by neuroticism and Extroversion. Comment by Florian Reichwein: Quote? Need to go through entire thingy before final version.

The resulting data of the study lend credit to the theory that positive affect and prosocial activities are bidirectionally related. And while extroversion showed no significant effect as a moderator, neuroticism did. Participants with high scores in neuroticism showed higher increases in positive affect after engaging in prosocial behavior. I personally think the moderation of neuroticism combined with the faster return to normal levels would be an interesting topic for future studies concerning mania.


At the introduction of this review I asked how a person should use his or her resources to gain the most happiness out of them. The papers we analyzed showed us that using resources to help others has, somewhat surprisingly, a greater positive effect than using them for oneself. But to truly maximize the benefits to happiness one should also consider the strength of the relationship one has with the receiver of the resources, the stronger the relationship the more of an effect it has on personal happiness. Giving to others will cause you to feel good and feeling good will lead you to being more inclined to sharing your wealth, time and other things, resulting in a positive feedback loop of happiness. Comment by Florian Reichwein: Did I use resources too much?

Of course the papers don’t complement each other completely, no matter how well you combine their results. For example at a glance it seems like the fact that Dunn et al. (2008) found prosocial spending as the only predictor of post-test spending seems contrary to the findings of Snippe et al. (2017) that prosocial behavior and positive affect are bidirectionally influencing each other. But a closer look reveals that while all variables may seem similar they are in fact different and thus the results of one may not translate to the other. Still, further testing should be done to see what kind of prosocial behavior actually increases happiness, since there may be exceptions. Furthermore while Aknin et al.’s (2011) paper wasn’t contradicted by the others it was also the first dealing with the question and more studies need to be done to give more weight to the data. All in all these papers give a good outline on how to attain happiness, but like all scientific papers they don’t prove anything, but only add weight to the collected amount of data acting as evidence for the effectiveness of these methods.


  1. Aknin, L. B., Sandstrom, G. M., Dunn, E. W., & Norton, M. I. (2011). It’s the recipient that counts: Spending money on strong social ties leads to greater happiness than spending on weak social ties. PLoS ONE, 6(2). Comment by Florian Reichwein: Exact date
  2. Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687–1688.
  3. Snippe, E., Jeronimus, B. F., aan het Rot, M., Bos, E. H., de Jonge, P., & Wichers, M. (2017). The reciprocity of prosocial behavior and positive affect in daily life. Journal of Personality. Comment by Florian Reichwein: Page number?


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