Imagine you’re walking down the street heading to grab a coffee, walking by a line of parked cars. All of a sudden you see it — there on the ground is a roll of quarters. You just found a whole $10 in coins.
No one’s around, so you probably won’t find the rightful owner. What do you do?
As a subscriber to this newsletter, I’m assume you would be looking for every opportunity to maximize your happiness. So how would you best spend this $10 windfall to achieve that?
Would you spend it on your coffee, and maybe celebrate your luck with a pastry? Or would you stop at the bookstore and pick up a self-help book… or a nice journal to write down things that make you feel grateful?
Well, a recent paper points to another course of action. You could crack open the roll, walk up and down the street, and feed all the expiring parking meters in a quick act of kindness.
Milla Titova (University of Washington Seattle) and Kennon Sheldon (University of Missouri) created an experiment to simulate that parking meter scenario in real life. They approached people on a street and offered them two quarters to fill in a happiness survey. Some participants then simply went on their way with their reward. Others who had just driven up were given the two coins to pay into their own parking meters before completing the survey. A third group were told to feed a meter that was about to expire beside a stranger’s vehicle.
Titova and Sheldon analyzed the questionnaires and found that the third group – the ones who stopped a stranger from getting a ticket or being towed – were significantly happier. A subset of this group, those who left a note on the stranger’s windshield explaining their actions, wound up feeling even better.
This finding is important for a couple of reasons. First, most of us intuitively think that treating ourselves is the best way to improve our mood or wellbeing. From buying a candy bar, to a manicure, to a new car… we’re often fooled into thinking the best way to feel happier is to give ourselves something nice. But lots of studies point in the other direction. Even spending large sums of money on others makes us happier than using those same funds to treat ourselves. (This is one of my favorite areas of research that I’ll return to in later newsletters - sign up now so you don't miss it.)
But Titova and Sheldon’s research suggests something even more important -you get a kindness happiness boost not just when you don’t know the person you’re being nice to, but also when you don’t meet them at all. It turns out that merely concentrating on doing good for another human being makes can make us feel a little more connected to them. And feeling connected to other people is a great way to feel a bit better.
The parking meter experiment is a fascinating first step in understanding how our vital need for relatedness can be met without seeing the smiling face of a person we’re helping, or even receiving their thanks.
So why not go out and be a little selfish… by doing something for some else. It’ll make you feel a bit more socially connected, and a lot happier than you think.
Stay well, and be kind.
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.