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We've all heard that old adage, it's better to give than to receive. A new study out today lends it some scientific credence. The study finds that spending money on others makes us happier.

NPR's Eric Weiner has the details of the research published in the journal Science.

ERIC WEINER: Does money buy happiness? The verdict is far from clear, but Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Canada wondered. Maybe it isn't how much money we have, but what we do with it that matters. She and two colleagues devised an experiment. First, they asked a group of college students how happy they were? They then gave the participants money. Half were told to spend money on themselves. The rest were told to spend it on others - a gift for a friend or a charitable donation. That evening, the researchers again asked the students to gauge their happiness.

Elizabeth Dunn.

Professor ELIZABETH DUNN (Psychology, University of British Columbia): We found that people who were assigned to spend the money on other people were significantly happier than those who were assigned to spend it on themselves.

WEINER: What really surprised Dunn and her colleagues, though, is this: The amount of money the students were given, $5 or $20 didn't seem to matter at all. It was how they chose to spend it that determine their happiness levels. The findings are far from ironclad partly because they rely on self reports of happiness. And those are not always reliable. But still, says Dunn, there's something here.

Prof. DUNN: Even making small changes in how we spend money on a daily basis may have some benefits for wellbeing. And in particular I think, just trying to figure out, you know, is there some small thing you could do, some small change you could make, and how you spend money in order to benefit other people.

WEINER: For selfish reasons actually, right?

Prof. DUNN: Ultimately.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. DUNN: But I think that I would feel that selfishness is the wrong word because just the fact that helping others makes us feel good is, I think, says something pretty positive about human nature.

WEINER: That may be, but another study suggests we're not very good at assessing human nature. Dunn and her colleagues asked a group of college students what they thought would make them happier, spending money on themselves or on others? The vast majority said on themselves. More evidence that when it comes to boosting our own happiness, we really don't have a clue.

Eric Weiner, NPR News, Washington.

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