The Science of Happiness | UNICEF Canada: For Every Child Skip to main content

If you're like most people, the last year has been a challenging one. COVID 19 has created a number of obstacles for all of us, some larger than others. Finding moments of happiness and joy are so important during these challenging times. To learn more about how we can spark our own joy (to borrow a phrase from Marie Kondo), we sat down with Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Dr. Dunn studies how time, money, and technology shape human happiness, and in particular, her research has shown how giving to others and happiness are more connected than you might think.

What made you want to study happiness?

I've always been fascinated by [happiness]. I mean, to me, this is one of those things that just naturally captures the imagination. And I was fortunate enough as an undergraduate to get to work with one of the world's leading experts on happiness, Dan Gilbert… He really sucked me in and from there that point forward, I was sparked, and I just couldn't learn enough about happiness.

What has been one of your most interesting learnings about happiness?

One of the most interesting things that I've learned through my work is that people seem to get more happiness from helping others than helping themselves.

In one of the first [analyses] we ever did on this topic; we sent our research assistants out on campus at UBC armed with cash. They literally walked up to people in the morning and handed them a five or a twenty-dollar bill [and] asked [them] to spend by the end of the day. Now there was this one catch, which was that half the people were told they had to use this money to benefit somebody else. Meanwhile, [the other] half were told they had to use this money to benefit themselves. And then we just called people back at end of the day, asked them how their day had been, how happy they'd been feeling.

And we found out how exactly they'd used the money. And what we discovered was that people who had been assigned to spend this money to benefit somebody else ended up feeling happier that day, compared to people who'd been assigned to spend the money on themselves.

That was originally just a small study just conducted on campus with students. But since then, we've expanded this research. We've conducted studies all over the world, and we've been able to replicate this effect, not only in wealthy countries like Canada, but also in countries where many of our participants were struggling to meet their own basic needs.

And even among people who were really struggling to make ends meet, people [were] happier when they use their money to benefit others rather than themselves.

What advice would you give to people who want to be happier?

There's a lot of, a lot of ways to do this, but one, particularly nice way – because it can help you and also help the broader society – is to think about a way that you could give back. Because as it turns out people, for example, who give money to charity are happier than those who don't, even after considering their income. And this is true in countries around the world. We've looked at this in over a hundred countries and this is what we see just over and over again. That suggests then that finding a way to give can really be a way to promote your own happiness.

However, I would say what we've discovered in our research is that giving doesn't necessarily always automatically lead to greater happiness for everyone. It matters how you give. So, it's important to find a cause that you really connect with, where you can really envision how your donation is making a difference. Finding that kind of cause – [one that you really identify with] – can make a real difference for your happiness.

What have you learned about the relationship between gratitude, generosity, and happiness?

There's some really interesting work [being done] on gratitude by my friend, Sarah Al, as well as other research that has shown that gratitude is this powerful emotion that doesn't just feel good. It also makes us want to do good. So, some researchers have argued that gratitude is a kind of adaptation for altruism. It's this emotion that pushes us to want help others.

We feel gratitude when something good has come our way, because [it often means that] someone else has done [something] for us. And when we've experienced this benefit from somebody else, it makes us want to not just necessarily pay that one person back, but pay it forward, to do some good for others.

Gratitude is an emotion that can spur feelings of happiness, but it can also spur people to want to engage in generosity.

Speaking with Dr. Dunn is a good reminder that here in Canada, we can be grateful for the things that we have easier access to – such as COVID-19 vaccines, but also of the importance, not just for others, but also for ourselves, that giving can have. Support UNICEF’s work this Giving Tuesday and join us in defending every child’s right to a childhood. Every donation is matched meaning you're helping 2x the number of children - and possibly doubling your happiness >>


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