The Sydney Morning Herald

By Matt Wade

If your household is anything like mine, putting the rubbish out is low on the hierarchy of family chores, especially on a rainy winter's night.

But the science of happiness has found a way to make that smelly job far more enjoyable — add a third bin alongside the garbage and the recycling to give things away.

Lab experiments run by Harvard University professor Mike Norton have found people feel happier about doing the bins when it's linked to giving something away that might be useful to others.

"Putting out the garbage is not a very positive activity for most people but, when part of it is 'what can I give for other people?', they enjoy doing putting out their trash much more," he said. Norton is now looking for towns and cities to help him run a bigger field study to investigate the feasibility of using waste collection to facilitate this type of "social recycling" (Australian suburbs and towns are welcome to join in). He also wants to get a deeper understanding of the links between household garbage management, giving and happiness.

"Accurately sorting your garbage into rubbish and recycling is incredibly important and we are trying to make it even more of a civic behaviour where you are also giving to other people," Norton said.

After more than a decade investigating the relationship between money and happiness, Norton has found repeatedly that giving things away is a reliable way to increase people's sense of wellbeing.

"Time and time again we see this basic relationship between giving and happiness that just doesn't seem to be there when we spend on ourselves," he said.

"People who give chronically are happier with their lives overall."

Of course, these findings from contemporary behavioural science echo ancient wisdom. But Norton says a deeper understanding of the relationship between happiness and giving can help today's businesses, and even governments, become more effective.

Consider how employees are rewarded — they are typically given salaries and bonuses to spend on themselves. Norton's findings suggest it may have a bigger impact to give employees money to spend on others.

Norton tested this idea in an experiment with teams of pharmaceutical salesman in Belgium. One group of workers was each given the equivalent of about $20 to spend on themselves and a second group was each given the same amount to spend on a colleague.

"In the teams that got money to spend on themselves, basically nothing happened," Norton said at the Behavioural Exchange 2014 conference in Sydney last week.

"But in the teams we gave money to spend on each other they started to sell better, they became a better team over time."

There were similar results from a similar experiment with university dodgeball teams in Canada.

Similar principles can help businesses build better relationships with their customers.

Norton conducted an experiment with a big American furniture retailer where one group of customers was offered conventional marketing incentives after making a purchase, such as discount coupons.

Another group was given a "DonorsChoose" gift card that allowed them to give to a needy school. The response rate was far higher for customers given the option of forwarding a donation. Those given the option of making a donation were also more likely to have made another purchase during the following six months.

The results of these and other experiments made Norton think about taxpayers. Was it possible to help people feel happier when they pay tax? Trials so far have shown people do feel better about giving money to governments when they can choose where it will go — that is, when paying taxes becomes more like giving. Norton says that even letting people express an unbinding opinion about where their taxes should be spent makes them feel much happier about paying them.

With an agenda that includes making tax payment and doing the garbage more enjoyable, you can't accuse happiness scientists of lacking ambition.

This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald