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Finding Happiness This Holiday Season

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It’s the hap-hap-happiest season! The holidays, whether you observe Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or any other cultural or religious celebration, are meant to be a time to give back and express gratitude to loved ones. It is difficult to focus on the true meaning of the holiday spirit however, when advertisements are constantly reminding us that happiness is found in expensive goods such as cars, clothes, jewelry, and other material possessions. This article seeks to explore the relationship that wealth and pleasure-seeking behavior have on well-being and to discuss pathways to happiness that are community driven and scientifically proven to improve well-being. 

Can money buy happiness? We currently live in a time and culture that is particularly dependent on material possessions as a barometer for measuring success and happiness. According to the American Psychological Association (2004), “compared with Americans in 1957, today we own twice as many cars per person and eat out twice as often.” While as a nation we might be more successful, does that actually translate to what we think it does—a happier life? The answer to this question is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no. Researchers have found that, in a sense, money can buy some measure of happiness.  A study done at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School found that individuals making less than $75,000 per year felt more bogged down by unfortunate events (health problems, divorce, loneliness) than individuals encountering those same misfortunes who made at or above the noted salary (Kahneman & Deaton, 2010). Conclusively, money does not buy happiness, despite what we have been led to believe, but it can ameliorate the effects of unfortunate circumstances. 

If money does not buy happiness, can seeking pleasure? Researchers have identified different types of well-being that are associated with different effects on an individual’s health, psyche, and overall well-being. The first type of well-being psychologists defined is hedonic well-being, which is characterized by pain avoidance and pleasure-seeking behavior. An example of a hedonic pleasure would be enjoying a good meal or purchasing a new car. The other type of well-being researchers have identified is eudaimonic well-being. Eudaimonic well-being is defined as striving for a greater purpose and meaning in life and can be exemplified by the happiness brought from feeling connected to a larger community (this particular connection is explored further later on in this article). Researchers at the University of California–Los Angeles sought to determine how hedonic and eudaimonic happiness impact an individual’s health. The cellular composition of blood sampled from 80 healthy adults was plotted against both variables. The report concluded that individuals reporting high levels of hedonic well-being showed greater indicators of stress in their blood, while the opposite was true for individuals high in eudaimonic well-being. One can, therefore, conclude that a materially pleasant life does not necessarily equate to a good life. So, if seeking pleasure and money do not lead to happiness, what does?

Donate to charity. Several studies have shown the positive effects that charitable donations have on an individual’s well-being. Dunn and colleagues (2008) conducted a study that explored this relationship by asking a sample of 635 participants to report their happiness levels and monthly spending. To summarize their data categorically, they created an index of personal spending, which was calculated as the total amount a participant spent on bills, expenses, and gifts for themselves. The other measure they created, which they called the index of prosocial spending, was calculated by totaling the amount spent on others and on donations to charity. Upon comparing participants’ well-being scores to both indices, they found there was no relationship between personal spending and well-being, but they did find that greater prosocial spending was significantly correlated to happiness. Happiness brought about from spending on others results in continued prosocial spending. A study conducted by Aknin et al. (2012) identified what they called a positive feedback loop between prosocial spending and happiness. The more participants spent on others, the happier they became, and the more likely they were to donate again. Concern for the amount to contribute, given your current financial circumstance, is legitimate, but take solace in the fact that how much you donate is not correlated to greater happiness. Namkee Choi and Jinseok Kim (2011) looked at how charitable giving effected adult well-being over time and found a positive relationship between the two, regardless of the amount spent.

Get involved! One of the greatest ways to give is by getting involved in your community. Scientists have proven that involvement in the community leads to happiness. Thois and Hewitt (2001) concluded that individuals who were happy were more likely to volunteer, and, in turn, volunteering led to greater happiness. Understanding how other variables influence this relationship is important when trying to maximize your results. For example, does any type of involvement lead to greater well-being or are there certain requirements that must be met to ensure happiness is achieved? A study completed on Italian youth between the ages of 14 and 19 from two separate cities (Albanesi, Cicognani, & Zani, 2007) explored how feeling connected to one’s community, civic engagement, and group membership impact social well-being. In the article, social well-being was defined as “the appraisal of one’s own circumstances and functioning in society.” Results concluded that a sense of community was the greatest predictor of social well-being. The study also revealed that civic engagement in the form of protesting was not significantly related to social well-being. Given the following information, one is more likely to achieve happiness by volunteering for an organization to which they feel connected.

Whether you decide to donate through a monetary contribution or by volunteering, know that your giving helps others and, in turn, ensures you a life of health and happiness. ‘Tis the season to express your gratitude through charitable donations and civic engagement! 


Aknin, L. B., Dunn, E. W., & Norton, M. I. (2012). Happiness runs in a circular motion: Evidence for a positive feedback loop between prosocial spending and happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(2), 347-355.

Albanesi, C., Cicognani, E., & Zani, B. (2007). Sense of community, civic engagement, and social well-being in Italian adolescents. Retrieved from 482a-946d-04d6c58d3587%40sessionmgr106&vid=1&hid=128

Burroughs, J. E., & Rindfleisch, A. (2002). Materialism and well-being: A conflicting values perspective. Journal Of Consumer Research, 29(3), 348-37.

Choi, N.G., & Kim, J. (2011). The effect of time volunteering and charitable donations in later life on psychological well-being. Ageing & Society, 31(4), 590-610.

DeAngelis, T. (2004). Consumerism and its discontents. Monitor on Psychology, 35. Retrieved from

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M.I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688.

Fredrickson, B. L., Grewen, K. M., Coffey, K. A., Algoe, S. B., Firestine, A. M., Arevalo, J. M. G., . . . Cole, S. W. (2013). A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110, 13684-13689.

Kahneman, D., & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(38), 16489-16493.

Thoits, P. A., & Hewitt, L. N. (2001). Volunteer work and well-being. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 42 (June), 115-31.

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