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Can Money Buy Happiness?


Sandee LaMotte wrote a fascinating article for CNN that explores the concept of happiness and its relation to monetary rewards. Based on her analysis of the latest psychological research, she claims that acquiring and spending money can make people feel happier. LaMotte describes the benefits of giving money to others through donations or volunteering. She states that “prior analyses of brain scans found giving stimulates the reward centers of the brain, flooding out system with feel-good chemicals that produce what is known as a ‘helper’s high.’” (LaMotte, 2020, para. 7). She describes the act of ‘prosocial spending’ as a key contributor to a healthy, happy, and long life. This paper is going to explore the causal claims made by the author of the recent CNN piece.

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However, the focus of the article shifts when LaMotte contradicts the argument for prosocial spending by dissecting the latest research from the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Based on this study, she claims that prosocial spending serves as an instant gratification tool. ‘Selfish’ spending, on the other hand, has more long-term, positive effects on mood and happiness. Falk and Graeber’s article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences does not fully support LaMotte’s claims that money causes happiness, or that selfish spending is associated with a good mood.

Falk and Graeber’s Findings

German researchers Armin Falk and Thomas Graeber have recently published a study that aimed to understand the causation chain between prosocial spending and happiness. They conducted a behavioral experiment that ultimately produced results, which contradicted previous research on the topic. Falk and Graeber (2020) introduced a choice paradigm, where participants could either make a targeted donation of 350 euros and potentially save the life of someone with tuberculosis or receive an amount of 100 euros. To do that, around 300 German college students had to enter a lottery (Falk & Graeber, 2020). More than 60% of participants chose to enter the first lottery, which gave them a chance of making a charitable donation (Falk & Graeber, 2020). Both lottery scenarios were real – the researchers paid spent a total of 152,064 euros on payments (LaMotte, 2020). The study’s main measure was self-reported happiness. The students who decided to enter the lottery for donations were at first happier and felt better about themselves than those who chose ‘selfish’ spending.

However, later findings revealed that a month after the lotteries have ended, participants who received 100 euros were much happier than those who won the donation lottery and presumably saved a life. This led to the researchers claiming that “prosocial behavior promoted happiness in the short run” (Falk & Graeber, 2020, p. 6465). Falk and Groeber argue that happiness is derived from different factors in short vs. long-term scenarios. The researchers claim that “money may be a continuing source of happiness if spent gradually and hence, leading to consumption that is spread out over time” (Falk & Graeber, 2020, p. 6468). Therefore, happiness, according to these findings, is a mixture of altruism and egoism.

Press Coverage of the Study

Sandee LaMotte has managed to create a compelling narrative and introduce a new fascinating study to the public in the most understandable way. She accurately presented the key findings of the study. She also described the procedures of the study in great detail. Her claims were grounded in the rules of causation, particularly covariation and temporal precedence. LaMotte pointed out the covariation in the study by presenting data that demonstrated the differences in the happiness levels of those who chose the donation lottery and those who opted out for the potential 100 euros. The temporal precedent was evident since the lottery choice preceded the effect it had on happiness. LaMotte, however, failed to eliminate extraneous by not factoring in unintended influences on the participants’ happiness.

Falk and Graeber focused on prosocial spending, rather than only happiness like LaMotte did in her article. The researchers’ goal was to explore the long-term effect of altruism vs. egoism. However, when their findings revealed that altruism did not necessarily lead to the best possible happiness outcomes, in the long run, they still acknowledged the importance of selfless acts. LaMotte (2020) suggested that “we are initially thrilled to help others, but in reality would truly rather help ourselves” (para. 27). However, Falk and Graeber claimed that people tended to mispredict their happiness. It would be more accurate for LaMotte to shift the article’s focus from money and happiness to altruism. The name of the piece would be, “Donations will not make you happier. Here is why you should still do it!” It would oppose a common argument that giving back is going to make a person a lot happier. However, the author could mention that people should not act altruistically just to make themselves feel better but to make a positive change in the world. Therefore, a person’s goal should be to find the most efficient way to benefit others.


Falk, A., & Graeber, T. (2020). Delayed negative effects of prosocial spending on happiness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201914324, 6463-6468. Web.

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LaMotte, S. (2020). Could money buy happiness after all? A new study thinks so. CNN. Web.

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