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Can Spending Money on Others Be Good for Your Health?

Could buying that sweater for your BFF be as good for your heart as a beta blocker?
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Could buying that sweater for your BFF be good for your health? Perhaps.

For years, researchers have known that spending money on others — or giving back in other ways, like volunteering — can boost your happiness. But we haven’t seen much about it’s impact on your physical health. Until now.

An article entitled “Is Spending Money On Others Good For Your Heart,” published in February in the journal Health Psychology (a publication of the American Psychological Association), links spending money on other people with lower blood pressure.

Two studies were conducted, explains Ashley Whillans, one of the study's authors and a doctoral student in Social Psychology at the University of British Columbia. In the first, participants were “prescribed” to spend a certain amount of money on others. The more money spent, the lower their blood pressure was two years later. In the second, participants were assigned to two groups — one instructed to spend money on other people, the other to spend on themselves. The bunch told to be generous saw their blood pressure fall. And the results were fairly dramatic — the researchers found giving money away was comparable to taking antihypertensive medication or starting a new exercise regimen.

What do you need to know to put this research to use in your own life?

  • Giving to “close” others seems to be the most effective, says Whillans, who notes that additional research is needed to shed more light on the benefits. But if you're honing your recipient list, family and close friends should be at the top.
  • Don’t give what you don’t have. Even with the advantages, people shouldn’t give more than what’s realistic for them. “There is research suggesting that if you help beyond your means, that can have detrimental effects to health and happiness,” says Whillans.
  • Factor gifts into your budget. An earlier study in the Journal of Consumer Research revealed that gifts can be budget busters, scenarios in which we give ourselves permission to overspend, because we treat them as “exceptional expenses.” The trouble is these exceptions — birthdays, holidays, engagements, etc. — actually happen all the time. “Overspending on this one item isn’t [typically] just overspending on this one item,” says Abigail Sussman, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. So look back at your past gift-giving behavior to see how much you’re actually spending — then plan for it going forward (perhaps by cutting out other, less meaningful, expenses).
  • When you give, give freely. Once you’ve adjusted your budget and evaluated your spending, give with no strings attached. “We’ll [spend money on] things ... to make ourselves feel good [but] we attach so much guilt that we don’t get to enjoy it,” says Jesse Meacham, founder of You Need A Budget. Planning ahead should free you up to reap the benefits of your generosity.

--- with Hayden Field