Giving more won’t make you happier

See also: Time-se­ries data for in­come & hap­piness?


At first ap­prox­i­ma­tion, there are two mo­ti­va­tions for donat­ing money – ego­is­tic & al­tru­is­tic.

The ego­is­tic mo­ti­va­tion re­lates to the per­sonal benefit you ac­crue from giv­ing your money away. The al­tru­is­tic mo­ti­va­tion re­lates to the benefits that other peo­ple re­ceive from your dona­tions. (This roughly maps to the fuzzies vs. utilons (a) dis­tinc­tion.)

The ego­is­tic mo­ti­va­tion for donat­ing is scope insensitive

The ego­is­tic mo­ti­va­tion for donat­ing is highly scope in­sen­si­tive – giv­ing away $500 feels roughly as good as giv­ing away $50,000. I haven’t found any aca­demic ev­i­dence on this, but it’s been ro­bustly true in my ex­pe­rience.

This scope in­sen­si­tivity seems pretty baked in – know­ing about it doesn’t make it go away. I can re­mind my­self that I’m hav­ing 100x the im­pact when I donate $50,000 than when I donate $500, but I find that when I re­flect ca­su­ally about my dona­tions, I feel about as satis­fied at my small dona­tions as I do about my large ones, even af­ter re­peat­edly re­mind­ing my­self about the 100x differ­en­tial.

We’re prob­a­bly also scope in­sen­si­tive qual­i­ta­tively – giv­ing $5,000 to a low-im­pact char­ity feels about as good as giv­ing $5,000 to an effec­tive char­ity (es­pe­cially if you don’t re­flect very much about the im­pact of the dona­tion, and es­pe­cially es­pe­cially if the low-im­pact char­ity tells you a com­pel­ling story about the par­tic­u­lar peo­ple your dona­tion is helping).

Effec­tive giv­ing in­creases hap­piness, but so does low-im­pact giving

EA some­times ad­vo­cates that giv­ing will in­crease your hap­piness. Here’s an 80,000 Hours ar­ti­cle (a) to that effect. Here’s a piece by Giv­ing What We Can (a).

I think some­times im­plicit here is the claim that giv­ing effec­tively will in­crease your hap­piness (I think this be­cause al­most all other dis­cus­sion of giv­ing in EA spaces is about effec­tive giv­ing, and why effec­tive giv­ing is some­thing to get ex­cited about).

It seems pretty clear that donat­ing some money to char­ity will in­crease your hap­piness. It’s less clear that donat­ing to an effec­tive char­ity will make you hap­pier than donat­ing to a low-im­pact char­ity.

Given the scope in­sen­si­tivity of the ego­is­tic mo­ti­va­tion, it’s also un­clear that giv­ing away a lot of money will make you hap­pier than giv­ing away a small amount of money.

It seems es­pe­cially un­clear that the dona­tion-to-hap­piness link scales any­where lin­early. Per­haps donat­ing $1,000 makes you hap­pier than donat­ing $100, but does it make you 10x as happy? Does donat­ing $2,000 make you 2x as donat­ing $1,000? My in­tu­ition is that it doesn’t.

In­come in­creases hap­piness, up to a point

Okay, so that’s a bunch of dis­cus­sion from in­tu­ition & lived ex­pe­rience. Now let’s look at pa­per.

Jebb et al. 2018 an­a­lyzed Gal­lup Wor­ld­wide Poll sur­vey data on in­come & hap­piness. This dataset had re­sponses from about 1.7 mil­lion peo­ple in 164 coun­tries, so we don’t have to worry about small sam­ple size.

Jebb et al. were cu­ri­ous about the in­come sa­ti­a­tion effect – is there a point at which ad­di­tional in­come no longer con­tributes to sub­jec­tive well-be­ing? And if there is, where is it?

From the Gal­lup data, Jebb et al. found that there is in­deed an in­come sa­ti­a­tion effect:

Globally, hap­piness stopped in­creas­ing alongside in­come af­ter $95,000 USD /​ year.

For Western Euro­pean re­spon­dents, hap­piness stopped in­creas­ing alongside in­come af­ter $100,000 USD /​ year. For North Amer­i­can re­spon­dents, the sa­ti­a­tion point was $105,000 USD /​ year.

An aside on terminology

Sub­jec­tive well-be­ing” is the term so­cial sci­en­tists use to think about hap­piness. Re­searchers usu­ally break sub­jec­tive well-be­ing down into two com­po­nents – life eval­u­a­tion & emo­tional well-be­ing. Here are heavy­weights Daniel Kah­ne­man & An­gus Deaton on how those two things are differ­ent (a):

Emo­tional well-be­ing (some­times called he­do­nic well-be­ing or ex­pe­rienced hap­piness) refers to the emo­tional qual­ity of an in­di­vi­d­ual’s ev­ery­day ex­pe­rience – the fre­quency and in­ten­sity of ex­pe­riences of joy, fas­ci­na­tion, anx­iety, sad­ness, anger, and af­fec­tion that make one’s life pleas­ant or un­pleas­ant. Life eval­u­a­tion refers to a per­son’s thoughts about his or her life. Sur­veys of sub­jec­tive well-be­ing have tra­di­tion­ally em­pha­sized life eval­u­a­tion. The most com­monly asked ques­tion in these sur­veys is the life satis­fac­tion ques­tion: “How satis­fied are you with your life as a whole these days?” … Emo­tional well-be­ing is as­sessed by ques­tions about the pres­ence of var­i­ous emo­tions in the ex­pe­rience of yes­ter­day (e.g., en­joy­ment, hap­piness, anger, sad­ness, stress, worry).

Jebb et al. break down emo­tional well-be­ing fur­ther into pos­i­tive af­fect & nega­tive af­fect, which roughly cor­re­spond to ex­pe­rienc­ing pos­i­tive & nega­tive emo­tive states.

Life eval­u­a­tion seems like the more in­tu­itive met­ric for our pur­poses here. (It’s also the more con­ser­va­tive choice due to its higher sa­ti­a­tion points.) So when I talk about “hap­piness,” I’m ac­tu­ally talk­ing about “sub­jec­tive well-be­ing as as­sessed by life eval­u­a­tion scores.” My main points would still hold if we fo­cused on emo­tional well-be­ing in­stead.

In­come in­creases hap­piness up to $115,000 /​ year

Re­turn­ing to Table 1, we can pull out a cou­ple of take­aways:

  • The in­come sa­ti­a­tion point for most EAs is at least $100,000 USD /​ year.

    • Most EAs are in North Amer­ica and Western Europe.

      • The sa­ti­a­tion point for life eval­u­a­tion in Western Europe is about $100,000 USD /​ year.

      • The life eval­u­a­tion sa­ti­a­tion point in North Amer­ica is about $105,000 USD /​ year.

  • Al­most all EAs fall into Jebb et al.’s “high ed­u­ca­tion” bracket: 16+ years of ed­u­ca­tion, i.e. on track to com­plete a Bach­e­lor’s.

    • High-ed­u­ca­tion pop­u­la­tions have higher sa­ti­a­tion points than low-ed­u­ca­tion pop­u­la­tions, an effect that the au­thors at­tribute to “in­come as­pira­tions or so­cial com­par­i­sons with differ­ent groups.”

    • The “high ed­u­ca­tion” sa­ti­a­tion point is $115,000 USD /​ year.

      • That’s a global figure. The pa­per doesn’t give a re­gion-by-re­gion break­out of the “high ed­u­ca­tion” co­hort; it’s likely that the figure is even higher in the Western Europe & North Amer­i­can re­gions, which have higher sa­ti­a­tion points than the global av­er­age.

Essen­tially, all in­come earned up to $115,000 USD /​ year (for col­lege-ed­u­cated folks liv­ing in North Amer­ica & Western Europe) con­tributes to one’s hap­piness.

Put­ting it all to­gether

We can use the Jebb et al. pa­per to in­fer that dona­tions which put your an­nual in­come be­low $115k will prob­a­bly make you less happy. (And if you’re giv­ing sub­stan­tial amounts while earn­ing a to­tal in­come of less than $115k, those dona­tions will prob­a­bly con­tribute to a de­crease in your hap­piness.)

Cor­re­spond­ingly, donat­ing amounts such that your an­nual in­come re­mains above $115k prob­a­bly won’t af­fect your hap­piness.

There’s a wrin­kle here: it’s pos­si­ble that much of the hap­piness benefit of earn­ing a high in­come comes from the knowl­edge that you earn a high in­come, not what you use the money for ma­te­ri­ally. If this is the case, donat­ing large amounts out of an in­come above $115k shouldn’t ding your hap­piness.

So per­haps only a weaker ver­sion of the claim holds: once you achieve an an­nual in­come above $115,000, you can give away large por­tions of it with­out in­cur­ring a hap­piness penalty (hav­ing already re­al­ized the happy-mak­ing benefit of your earn­ings). But even in this case, donat­ing large amounts out of an in­come less than $115k still low­ers your hap­piness (be­cause you never benefit from the knowl­edge that you earn at least $115k).

It’s true that the act of donat­ing will gen­er­ate some per­sonal hap­piness. But given the scope in­sen­si­tivity at play here, you can re­al­ize a lot of this benefit by donat­ing small amounts (and thus keep­ing a lot more of your money, which can then be de­ployed in other happy-mak­ing ways).

From a purely ego­is­tic view­point, scope in­sen­si­tivity lets us have our cake & eat it too – we can feel good about our donat­ing be­hav­ior while keep­ing most of our money.

Con­clu­sion: EA shouldn’t say that effec­tive giv­ing will make you happy

My pro­vi­sional con­clu­sion here is that EA shouldn’t recom­mend effec­tive giv­ing on ego­is­tic grounds.

There re­mains a strong al­tru­is­tic case to be made for effec­tive giv­ing, but I think it’s worth ac­knowl­edg­ing the real trade­off be­tween giv­ing away large amounts of money and one’s per­sonal hap­piness, at least for peo­ple earn­ing less than $115,000 USD /​ year (on av­er­age, for col­lege-ed­u­cated peo­ple in Western Europe & North Amer­ica). If you want to give large amounts while avoid­ing this trade­off, you should achieve a sta­ble an­nual in­come of at least $115k be­fore mak­ing sub­stan­tial dona­tions.

Fur­ther, EA should ac­tively dis­cour­age peo­ple from effec­tive giv­ing if they’re mainly con­sid­er­ing it as a way to be­come hap­pier. Effec­tive giv­ing prob­a­bly won’t make you hap­pier than low-im­pact giv­ing, and donat­ing large amounts won’t make you hap­pier than donat­ing small amounts. Say­ing oth­er­wise would be a false promise.


Thanks to Gre­gory Lewis, Howie Lem­pel, He­len Toner, Ben­jamin Pence, and an anony­mous col­lab­o­ra­tor for feed­back on drafts of this es­say. Cross-posted to my blog.