How To Boost Happiness During COVID-19
August 27, 2020

How To Boost Happiness During COVID-19

One day, when I was in my 20s, my sister and I were having lunch at a downtown restaurant. We decided it might be fun to pay for somebody else’s meal: a secret we would share only with the server. The conversation with my sister went something like this:

  • Sarah: “What about that guy with his son in the corner?”
  • Me: “No, I would prefer that older woman sitting by herself.”
  • Sarah: “But if we do that, it might scare her. She might think she has a creepy admirer.”

We spent half our mealtime cycling through prospects. It was one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve ever shared with my sister. When “our guy” asked for his check, we watched from afar.

In the years that followed, I did this several times. But I have mixed feelings about it now. On one hand, it was highly entertaining. However, I could argue it wasn’t fair. Some of those people might have worried about a stalker.

I’ve done plenty of mischievous things over the years in the name of entertainment. My friends often say, “Do you remember the time you [fill in something stupid here]. Sometimes I remember. Sometimes I don’t. But I recall every time I anonymously paid for someone’s meal.

There might be a reason for that. Perhaps we’re meant to give. When we do, it might give us pleasure we don’t easily forget.

In fact, researchers from the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School say we gain more pleasure when we give money to other people, compared to spending money on ourselves. In one experiment, researchers asked passersby to rate their current levels of happiness. They then gave them envelopes with either a $5 bill or a $20 bill. The researchers asked them to spend the money before 5pm. In half the cases, the participants were asked to buy a treat for themselves. The other half was asked to spend the money on someone else.

When the researchers called, at 5PM, they asked each participant to rate their level of happiness. Those who had spent the money on someone else reported higher levels of happiness than those who had spent the money on themselves.

It didn’t matter whether they spent $5 or $20.

This supports Gallup World Poll research representing a cross-section of people in 136 countries. The poll asked more than 200,000 people whether they had donated money to charity over the previous month. The survey also asked them to rate their levels of happiness. In 120 out of 136 countries, those who donated money reported being happier. This trend emerged in rich and poor countries. The giver’s income level didn’t matter.

The study, however, didn’t ask about a specific type of charitable giving. Research shows that when people give money and they see the results of their generosity, it gives them far more pleasure than donating money to a faceless organization. Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and co-author of Happy Money, calls this “prosocial giving.”

As a happiness researcher, she knew that donating money is supposed to make us happier. But when she donated money, she found it didn’t boost her mood. She describes this in her TED-talk, Helping others makes us happier–but it matters how we do it.

She says we’re happier when we practice “prosocial giving.” In her case, she joined a group of 25 people who helped a family of Syrian refugees move to Canada. They raised money as a group (providing a social, team-like element) and sought additional help from a corporate sponsor. They found a home for the family, filled the refrigerator with food and then met the family when they arrived at the airport. To this day, she says these refugees are now part of her extended family.

“Back in the lab,” she says, “we had 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.”

It’s great to help a family of struggling refugees. But we could also help people in our own backyards. COVID-19 increased this need. Plenty of people are struggling, financially and socially. Some are elderly and afraid to leave their homes, for fear of getting sick. If this describes someone you know (it could even be a total stranger) you might make them dinner or order take-out food. They’ll appreciate that, and research suggests it should also boost your mood.

But if you practice “prosocial giving,” the benefits increase. In other words, enjoy the food with them, in their own backyard, while practicing social distancing.

This brings me back to that restaurant meal with my sister. We had fun trying to figure out who would get a free lunch. You and your friends could do something similar. You might share lunch and a conversation with an elderly couple. You might pull money together for a laptop, so a teen from a low-income family could do their school assignments. You might provide a small interest-free loan to someone through Kiva. When doing so, you could choose the recipient of your money and see how it helps. I described this in my column, Crack The Cycle of Poverty With No Effort or Cost.

By practicing “prosocial giving,” you can either share in the joy or see results from afar. Every religion in the world says we should give. We should help the poor and disadvantaged. Even if we’re poor, we should be generous and helpful. But there’s one thing religious texts might sell short: Giving, when done right, can be so much fun.

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