Illustration of modified Mona Lisa
People are terrible at predicting what will make them happy, according to new findings (Illustration by Laurin Rubin/Stone/Getty Images)

Topics: Ethical Living | Society

Happiness researchers find that giving money away is the ticket

As they probe the mysteries of what makes the human heart sing, they have also found that being involved in something meaningful gives joy


Imagine, for a moment, that they gave out gold medals for happiness; that you could stand on the podium for simply feeling content. The medals themselves, perhaps, could be shaped like those yellow smiley-face buttons, the likes of which you see putting the kibosh on high prices in Walmart commercials.

How would you fare? How would Canada stand? Disneyland aside, what’s really the happiest place on Earth?

As it turns out, Denmark is the country to beat — at least according to researchers at the University of Leicester in England, who in 2006 compiled data to create a “world map of happiness.” Switzerland, Austria and Iceland follow on this particular world map. As for Canada, we placed 10th — not so bad, given that the list is 178 countries long.

Read the newspapers, watch TV, and you’ll see bad-news stories every day: world-altering events from natural disasters to climate change, war in Afghanistan and whole nations starving. With all of that grimness, you might not expect we’d be singing show tunes in the shower. But over the past decade, researchers have delved further into what exactly makes us happy, and in doing so they’ve come up with some surprising results. While happiness can ride up and down with good or bad events — and there are genetic variations — we tend to default to happiness, bouncing back to a relatively happy norm in a pretty short time frame. At least, the University of Leicester study suggests, in places where basic needs such as financial security, health care and education are met.

Just because we’re pretty happy to begin with, though, doesn’t mean we aren’t obsessed with becoming happier. And that’s where we go wrong, some experts say. Because, as it turns out, we’re terrible predictors of the things that make us happy.

One of the things that we think are going to add a spring to our step? Spending money, of course. Despite the old adage that “money can’t buy happiness,” the commercials that whiz by us during our nightly television shows say something different. “Popular culture is dominated by advertisements that offer the following promise: buy our good or service, and your subjective well-being will increase,” writes Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at University College London, in an essay for the Edge Foundation’s online journal.

Research has shown that we truly believe shopping will make us feel better. In one of a series of studies at the University of British Columbia, researchers asked over 100 students to predict what they thought would make them happier. Most — falsely, as it turns out — thought that spending money on themselves would be the answer. “In fact, our study showed that it was the opposite,” says Lara Aknin, who co-authored the study with Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton.

While there are correlations between wealth and happiness, Aknin adds, that relationship isn’t strong unless you’re living in very poor conditions. “If you’re living in the slums of India, then how much money you have strongly relates to how happy you are,” she says. “But in North America, it doesn’t seem to do as much for our happiness as we think it does.”

What does seem to lead to happiness, in North America at least, is giving money away. In a second study by Aknin and her co-researchers, students were given$5 or$20 and told what to spend it on: gifts for themselves, bills and expenses, gifts for others or charitable donations. The students’ happiness levels were measured at the beginning and at the end of the day; those who gave their money away — either as gifts or donations — saw the greatest increase in happiness, Aknin says.

In fact, happiness research goes further than just suggesting that giving to charity might be better for your well-being; it also makes the point that getting involved in issues and groups that are meaningful makes us happier, too.

Return, for a moment, to those weighty issues that are prominent in today’s headlines: war, climate change, food crises and the like. Getting involved in those issues can generate good feelings of social acceptance and meaning. In other words, by helping make the world better, people can feel happier.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction and happiness that can come from working on those problems,” says Julie Norem, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. “I think, in fact, that kind of engagement leads to the best happiness and the most enduring kind of happiness.”

Happiness through engagement pertains to religious involvement as well, says David Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Michigan and a leading expert on happiness and well-being. Statistics show that there’s a positive relationship at the individual level between religion and happiness, he says. That may emerge partly from believing in the promise of an afterlife, something that brings hope to individuals’ lives, but there are other factors at work as well. “You’re part of a social support system, that’s part of what it is,” Myers says. “It’s also something that lends meaning and coherence for people in their lives, and that’s associated with positive well-being.”

Indeed, being involved and being happy seem to be inextricably wound together, says happiness expert Ed Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois and co-author (with his son, Robert Biswas-Diener) of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Just as more-involved people are likely to be happier, happy people are also more likely to get involved, he says. In fact, happiness — in some perhaps unexpected ways — can lead to a better life all around. “I think being positive and at least slightly happy, and certainly optimistic, plays a positive role in human progress,” says Diener. “We now have a lot of data on how happy people live more effectively on average — more friends, better marriages, more volunteering, more work citizenship, more pro-peace attitudes, et cetera.”

Given that happy people have also been shown to have more career success, increased creativity, better physical health and even longer lives, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we all want to be happier. But happiness shouldn’t be our ultimate and exclusive goal, Norem says. In fact, research has shown that obsessing over happiness actually takes away from our overall feeling of well-being. Other feelings might have their place too, Norem adds, especially when problems are on the horizon. Since we do adapt quickly to negative news and events, Norem says, it’s sometimes easy for us to avoid them — at least until they become too serious to ignore. Not all in life is good, after all, whether it be those larger issues looming in the news or the valleys we encounter in our own lives. “We devote ourselves to feeling happy in the moment. That pushes aside our worries, and it also pushes aside doing anything about those worries,” Norem says.

So, when the happiness Olympics come to be, maybe gold shouldn’t be our goal after all. Maybe bronze is a better ambition: a level of happiness that comes naturally to us anyway, one that doesn’t require our constant attention or have us pursuing the wrong goals to make ourselves happier. An aspiration that keeps our eye on the prize, sure, but one that also helps us remember that there are other goals just as grand.


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s May 2010 issue with the title “The happiness enigma.”

Lisa Van de Ven is a freelance journalist in Toronto.


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