14 Jan 2020

The link between helping and happiness

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:30 pm on 14 January 2020

While money can't buy you happiness, spending it the right way certainly can.

Professor Elizabeth Dunn from the University of British Columbia says the link between money and happiness is pretty tenuous. And surprisingly, so is the link between giving and feeling good. Her research shows that if helping someone in need is considered a moral obligation, it doesn't boost happiness. How we help - and how we think about it - matters.

Prof Dunn says happiness is a topic that will always be of interest to human beings. It’s reflected in her Ted Talk on the subject being one of the most viewed in 2019. 

Happiness researcher Elizabeth Dunn

Happiness researcher Elizabeth Dunn Photo: Supplied / Kris Krug

She says there are three core aspects that science tells us makes us happy, what she calls the happiness trifecta. 

“What we mean when we talk about happiness is having a fair bit of positive emotion - joy, contentment - and other sorts of positive feelings on a daily basis and not having too much negative emotions. Everybody experiences some negative emotion, but you want to have at least a preponderance of positive emotion relative to negative emotion.

“Finally, we also look at how much life satisfaction people report. So, when people cognitively evaluate and reflect on their lives, do they feel they’re living the life they want to have. We’d say someone’s very happy when they’re high in life satisfaction, they experience a lot of positive emotions on a typical day, and not too much negative emotions.”

Prof Dunn says if someone came to her saying they weren’t living the life they wanted to, she’d suggest embracing the spirit of the new year and new decade and make some positive changes. 

Giving money to charity was one way that people anecdotally reported giving them happiness, but when Prof Dunn tried it, she found she didn’t feel anything. That provoked her to look into it in a more scientific way. 

“I felt I couldn’t see the impact that my money was having. Sometimes when we give money to charity, we assume we’ll be making a difference but it’s hard understand how exactly we’re really helping others.” 

She says what matters is not giving, but how we give. In a study, they found that children were happy to give away treats to a monkey puppet when they could see it reacting positively to the treats. 

“I would argue that, as adults, it also matters to us that we get to see the people that we’re helping enjoying what we give them and, often, charitable giving doesn’t provide us with that opportunity.”

Human beings, she says, have evolved to help one another and it’s part of the reason for our survival success on the planet. It therefore makes sense that we would experience joy when we sacrifice a little to give to those in need.

Another part of her research is on whether money can bring happiness. She argues it absolutely can, but it matters how we spend it. 

“Money seems to be an opportunity for happiness, but an opportunity that many people squander. Just becoming wealthier is not a guarantee of happiness, however it’s true that people that have more money are happier than those that don’t.”

Her advice is to evaluate the way you spend money and the habits you’ve gotten into. For instance, some habitual purchases that may have bought joy to you earlier on might no longer be bringing happiness. 

Another thing we can do is use our money to buy ourselves time, for instance by getting a cleaner to free up weekends. 

“I’m a big fan of buying my way out of cleaning because I’m terrible it, it makes me miserable, it makes me miserable just thinking about it and so that’s one area where I do indulge and pay for some help.”

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