In my last newsletter I told you how performing a small act of kindness – putting two quarters in a stranger’s parking meter to prevent them from getting a ticket – gives you a bigger happiness boost than spending that same 50 cents on yourself.
If you took my advice and have tried to find little ways to help other people, then - without realizing it - you might be on a path that leads you to doing something extraordinarily kind and selfless…. like donating your spare kidney to save a life.
The experiment I outlined last time - where you can either keep the two quarters your got for filling in a happiness survey or pay to feed a stranger’s parking meter - is all done for pretty small stakes. I mean, what can you really buy for 50 cents these days?
You probably thought that if the amount of money you stood to gain was higher, then the results would be very different. Keeping $20, or $200, or $2,000 is bound to feel better than giving it away, right?
Well, not according to research done by my friend Liz Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and co-author of the book “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending.”
Liz’s team approached people on the street and handed them Canadian $20 bills. Some people got to use that money to treat themselves, whereas others were told that they had to spend the cash on someone else. When the researchers followed up with the test subjects, they found that people who spent the $20 on others were still in a happier mood many hours later than those who treated themselves.
But what about even bigger sums of cash than $20? Well, sadly with grant funding the way it is, research scientists don’t have a lot of money to burn to answer questions like these… which meant that Liz had to get creative to test the hypothesis that this happiness boost would continue as the sums of money given away got bigger and bigger. Instead of bankrupting her department, Liz and her colleagues decided to carry out the research in places where $20 goes a lot further.
She repeated her experiment in South Africa, Uganda and even in remote villages on the islands of Vanuatu. Some of the people in the studies reported that they’d had trouble even covering their family food bill – and yet the results were the same in these poorer nations as they had been in Canada. People reported feeling happier if they’d given the money away.
Making a big commitment to others still makes us happier than we think. And if you really keep following the science and look for bigger and bigger opportunities to show other people kindness, then you could be on that path to live organ donation, according to Abby Marsh - a Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience at Georgetown.
Abby’s always been fascinated by the motivations of the kindest and most altruistic members of society – ever since a total stranger risked his life by running across a busy highway to save her following a traffic accident.
The widely held assumption is that all humans put themselves first, so Abby wanted to find out what made altruists so different to this selfish stereotype. She decided to recruit people who had chosen to go through a fairly serious operation to donate a kidney to a stranger.
Abby was skeptical that she would find enough donors willing to give up their time to help – but she was inundated with kind offers from people who were only too happy to be of assistance.
During her interviews with these subjects, Abby heard time and again that the kidney donors didn’t think what they’d done was particularly special. The donors also often spoke of the joy and satisfaction they felt after giving away a healthy kidney to save a life.
Abby also saw a particular patterns emerge in their biographies. Many of these donors had started their generosity modestly… volunteering at animal shelters, fostering children, giving blood and donating bone marrow. They progressed from small gestures to larger and more involved acts of kindness - as they experienced the happiness boost of helping others, they wound up looking for more and more ways to be of service.
I think this is a lovely idea to mull over. As a society we rightly think about the importance of physical exercise – but maybe we all need to flex our kindness muscles a bit more. Start small, and who knows where the happiness boost of kindness will take you?
Stay well... and be more altruistic.
I hope you're enjoying The Science of Wellbeing, my weekly newsletter looking at the latest research on happiness. If you find the tips and insights I share useful, please share these articles to help spread the word.