A Happiness Expert Says Generosity Brings Us Joy, But There’s a Catch

It matters how we do it.

By Neng/ Shutterstock
By Neng/ Shutterstock

We’ve always been taught that by extending a hand to others, we become more compassionate, caring, and happier in turn. In a New York Times article in 2012, Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D., a social psychologist and associate professor at the University of British Columbia, summarized her team’s research on the science behind that intrinsic sense of joy we feel when we give: “Money can’t buy happiness,” Dunn explained. “You’re better served in many cases by simply buying less — and buying for others.”

However, when revisiting the topic in a recent TED Talk, Dunn highlights a gap in her team’s original findings.

“Spending money helping others doesn’t necessarily promote happiness,” she says. “Instead, it matters how we do it.” Dunn recalls sitting across from her accountant during the tax season following her Times article, feeling ashamed that she herself neglected to donate to charity that year — and wondered why she didn’t feel compelled to follow her own advice. Inspired to delve deeper into the science of giving, Dunn found that when it comes to how the action makes us feel, there’s a catch — and it has to do with the connection we feel to our generosity.

Make giving about connection

“We’re used to thinking about giving as something we should do,” Dunn says, “But when thinking about it this way, we’re missing out on one of the best parts of being human: that we have evolved to find joy in helping others.” Dunn explains that giving is one of our species’ adaptive behaviors that makes us feel fulfilled, but if we cannot envision where our dollars are going, our brains lose motivation to give, as we feel no connection to the people we’re helping.

After reflecting on her own lack of giving, Dunn says she took it upon herself to find a cause that allowed her to find moments of sincere connection with other individuals, by enrolling in a program through the Canadian government that allowed her to sponsor a family of refugees. Once she was able to envision the specific people who were benefiting from her kindness, she felt personally invested in the cause.  

Don’t focus on the dollar amount

The research team also found that across different regions globally, individuals who felt more connected to the causes they gave to saw a shift in their own mindsets. It was clear that no matter the financial situation, generosity is about so much more than the dollar amount — it’s about knowing that you’re making a difference to someone else. “We’d seen the benefits of giving spike when people felt a real sense of connection with those they were helping and could easily envision the difference they were making in those individuals’ lives,” she says. “[It] enables us to appreciate our shared humanity.”

Allow your generosity to fuel your own resilience

The deep sense of connection Dunn felt in her own giving allowed her to feel happier in her own life, and more equipped to face personal obstacles. “Creating these kinds of meaningful connections with individuals provides an opportunity to deal with challenges that feel overwhelming,” she notes. “This is the kind of helping that human beings evolved to enjoy.”

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