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Elizabeth Dunn: Helping others makes us happier -- but it matters how we do it

Research shows that helping others makes us happier. But in her groundbreaking work on generosity and joy, social psychologist Elizabeth Dunn found that there's a catch: it matters how we help. Learn how we can make a greater impact -- and boost our own happiness along the way -- if we make one key shift in how we help others. "Let's stop thinking about giving as just this moral obligation and start thinking of it as a source of pleasure," Dunn says.

So, I have a pretty fun job, which is to figure out what makes people happy. It's so fun, it might almost seen a little frivolous, especially at a time where we're being confronted with some pretty depressing headlines. But it turns out that studying happiness might provide a key to solving some of the toughest problems we're facing. It's taken me almost a decade to figure this out.

00:31footnote footnote Pretty early on in my career, I published a paper in "Science" with my collaborators, entitled, "Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness." I was very confident in this conclusion, except for one thing: it didn't seem to apply to me.

00:48 (Laughter)

00:49 I hardly ever gave money to charity, and when I did, I didn't feel that warm glow I was expecting. So I started to wonder if maybe there was something wrong with my research or something wrong with me. My own lackluster emotional response to giving was especially puzzling because my follow-up studies revealed that even toddlers exhibited joy from giving to others.

01:20 In one experiment, my colleagues Kiley Hamlin, Lara Aknin and I brought kids just under the age of two into the lab. Now, as you might imagine, we had to work with a resource that toddlers really care about, so we used the toddler equivalent of gold, namely, Goldfish crackers.

01:39 (Laughter)

01:41 We gave kids this windfall of Goldfish for themselves and a chance to give some of their Goldfish away to a puppet named Monkey.

01:50 (Video) Researcher: I found even more treats, and I'm going to give them all to you.

01:54 Toddler: Ooh. Thank you.

01:58 Researcher: But, you know, I don't see any more treats. Will you give one to Monkey?

02:04 Toddler: Yeah. Researcher: Yeah?

02:06 Toddler: Yeah. Here.

02:14 Researcher: Ooh, yummy. Mmmm.

02:18 Toddler: All gone, he ate it.

02:22 Elizabeth Dunn: Now, we trained research assistants to watch these videos and code toddlers' emotional reactions. Of course, we didn't tell them our hypotheses. The data revealed that toddlers were pretty happy when they got this pile of Goldfish for themselves, but they were actually even happier when they got to give some of their Goldfish away.

02:42footnote footnote And this warm glow of giving persists into adulthood. When we analyzed surveys from more than 200,000 adults across the globe, we saw that nearly a third of the world's population reported giving at least some money to charity in the past month. Remarkably, in every major region of the world, people who gave money to charity were happier than those who did not, even after taking into account their own personal financial situation. And this correlation wasn't trivial. It looked like giving to charity made about the same difference for happiness as having twice as much income.

03:25footnote footnote Now, as a researcher, if you're lucky enough to stumble on an effect that replicates around the world in children and adults alike, you start to wonder: Could this be part of human nature? We know that pleasure reinforces adaptive behaviors like eating and sex that help perpetuate our species, and it looked to me like giving might be one of those behaviors.

03:54 I was really excited about these ideas, and I wrote about them in the "New York Times." One of the people who read this article was my accountant.

04:04 (Laughter)

04:07 Yeah. At tax time, I found myself seated across from him, watching as he slowly tapped his pen on the charitable giving line of my tax return with this look of, like, poorly concealed disapproval.

04:22 (Laughter)

04:24 Despite building my career by showing how great giving can feel, I actually wasn't doing very much of it. So I resolved to give more.

04:36 Around that time, devastating stories about the Syrian refugee crisis were everywhere. I really wanted to help, so I pulled out my credit card. I knew my donations would probably make a difference for someone somewhere, but going to the website of an effective charity and entering my Visa number still just didn't feel like enough.

05:03footnote footnote That's when I learned about the Group of Five. The Canadian government allows any five Canadians to privately sponsor a family of refugees. You have to raise enough money to support the family for their first year in Canada, and then they literally get on a plane to your city. One of the things that I think is so cool about this program is that no one is allowed to do it alone. And instead of a Group of Five, we ended up partnering with a community organization and forming a group of 25. After almost two years of paperwork and waiting, we learned that our family would be arriving in Vancouver in less than six weeks. They had four sons and a daughter, so we raced to find them a place to live. We were very lucky to find them a house, but it needed quite a bit of work. So my friends came out on evenings and weekends and painted and cleaned and assembled furniture.

06:05footnote footnote When the big day came, we filled their fridge with milk and fresh fruit and headed to the airport to meet our family. It was a little overwhelming for everyone, especially the four-year-old. His mother was reunited with her sister who had come to Canada earlier through the same program. They hadn't seen each other in 15 years.

06:31footnote footnote When you hear that more than 5.6 million refugees have fled Syria, you're faced with this tragedy that the human brain hasn't really evolved to comprehend. It's so abstract. Before, if any of us had been asked to donate 15 hours a month to help out with the refugee crisis, we probably would have said no. But as soon as we took our family to their new home in Vancouver, we all had the same realization: we were just going to do whatever it took to help them be happy.

07:07 This experience made me think a little more deeply about my research. Back in my lab, 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.

07:27footnote footnote For example, in one experiment, we gave participants an opportunity to donate a bit of money to either UNICEF or Spread the Net. We chose these charities intentionally, because they were partners and shared the same critically important goal of promoting children's health. But I think UNICEF is just such a big, broad charity that it can be a little hard to envision how your own small donation will make a difference. In contrast, Spread the Net offers donors a concrete promise: for every 10 dollars donated, they provide one bed net to protect a child from malaria.

08:05 We saw that the more money people gave to Spread the Net, the happier they reported feeling afterward. In contrast, this emotional return on investment was completely eliminated when people gave money to UNICEF. So this suggests that just giving money to a worthwhile charity isn't always enough. You need to be able to envision how, exactly, your dollars are going to make a difference.

08:34 Of course, the Group of Five program takes this idea to a whole new level. When we first took on this project, we would talk about when the refugees would arrive. Now, we just refer to them as our family. Recently, we took the kids ice skating, and later that day, my six-year-old, Oliver, asked me, "Mommy, who is the oldest kid in our family?" I assumed he was talking about his plethora of cousins, and he was talking about them, but also about our Syrian family.

09:07footnote footnote Since our family arrived, so many people and organizations have offered to help, providing everything from free dental fillings to summer camps. It's made me see the goodness that exists in our community. Thanks to one donation, the kids got to go to bike camp, and every day of the week, some member of our group tried to be there to cheer for them. I happened to be there the day the training wheels were supposed to come off, and let me tell you, the four-year-old did not think this was a good idea. So I went over and talked to him about the long-term benefits of riding without training wheels.

09:49 (Laughter)

09:51 Then I remembered that he was four and barely spoke English. So I reverted to two words he definitely knew: ice cream. You try without training wheels, I'll buy you ice cream. Here's what happened next.

10:07 (Video) ED: Yes. Yeah!

10:10 Kid: I'm gonna try.

10:11 ED: Oh my God! Look at you go!

10:13 (Squealing) Look at you go! You're doing it all by yourself!

10:16 (Audience) (Laughter)

10:17 (Video) ED: Good job!

10:20 (Audience) (Laughter)

10:21 (Applause)

10:26 ED: So this is the kind of helping that human beings evolved to enjoy, but for 40 years, Canada was the only country in the world that allowed private citizens to sponsor refugees.

10:40 Now -- Canada!

10:42 (Applause)

10:44 It's pretty great.

10:47 Now Australia and the UK are starting up similar programs. Just imagine how different the refugee crisis could look if more countries made this possible.

10:58footnote footnote Creating these kinds of meaningful connections between individuals provides an opportunity to deal with challenges that feel overwhelming. One of those challenges lies just blocks from where I'm standing right now, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. By some measures, it's the poorest urban postal code in Canada. We actually debated whether to bring over a family of refugees, because there are so many people right here already struggling. My friend Evan told me that when he was a kid and his parents drove through this neighborhood, he would duck down in the back seat. But Evan's parents never would have guessed that when he grew up, he would open up the doors of a local restaurant and invite this community inside to enjoy three-course dinners. The program that Evan helped build is called "Plenty of Plates," and the goal is not just to provide free meals but to create moments of connection between people who otherwise might never make eye contact. Each night, a local business sponsors the dinner and sends a team of volunteers who help make and serve the meal. Afterward, the leftovers get distributed to people who are out on the street, and importantly, there's enough money left to provide a thousand free lunches for this community in the days that follow.

12:19 But the benefits of this program extend beyond food. For the volunteers, it provides an opportunity to engage with people, to sit down and hear their stories. After this experience, one volunteer changed his commute so that instead of avoiding this neighborhood, he walks through it, smiling or making eye contact as he passes familiar faces.

12:45 All of us are capable of finding joy in giving. But we shouldn't expect this to happen automatically. Spending money helping others doesn't necessarily promote happiness. Instead, it matters how we do it. And if we want people to give more, we need to subvert the way we think about charitable giving. We need to create opportunities to give that enable us to appreciate our shared humanity. If any of you work for a charity, don't reward your donors with pens or calendars.

13:21 (Applause)

13:25 Reward them with the opportunity to see the specific impact that their generosity is having and to connect with the individuals and communities they're helping.

13:37 We're used to thinking about giving as something we should do. And it is. But in 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. Let's stop thinking about giving as just this moral obligation and start thinking of it as a source of pleasure.

14:06 Thank you.

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