In many places, stress and anxiety are rising. In the largest known study of stress levels in the UK, YouGov found that ‘In the past year, 74% of people have felt so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope.’ Finding ways to alleviate stress is not an easy task. We know about meditation and its benefits, and we are well versed by now in how exercise can chip away at our angst. Perhaps though, there is one act that we are overlooking altogether.
Research shows that one of the best ways to increase your own happiness is to help other people. Elizabeth Dunn, a Canadian social psychologist has done considerable work exhibiting just this. In her TED talk (below), she details how in an experiment conducted by her team, toddlers were essentially quite happy when they received their treat, but far happier when giving treats away to the grateful puppet of this study. The toddlers involved were having to sacrifice their own treats in order to provide for the puppet, and although many of us would probably expect resistance in this scenario, the study crucially (and perhaps unexpectedly) indicated that this was not the case at all. The toddlers found it emotionally rewarding.
To test the possibility that children’s positive responses to giving were driven by the puppet’s reaction to receiving treats, coders conducting this study also rated the level of enthusiasm displayed by the puppet in each phase. In every phase, the puppet’s enthusiasm was not correlated with the children’s happiness suggesting children’s happiness was not a function of puppet enthusiasm. This whole experiment is relevant and important. It is cited as the ‘first evidence that giving to others makes young children happy-even happier than when they are receiving treats themselves’, and to me, it can serve us a great deal as we come up with fresh plans and construct new goals in the hope of providing some happiness and zen.
These findings, as Elizabeth Dunn expresses in her TED talk, accompany us into adulthood too. Analysis from over 200,000 adults showed that in every region of the world, people who gave money to charity were happier than those who did not, regardless of their financial situation. Her research also revealed that astonishingly, giving to charity made about as much of a difference for happiness as having twice as much income. These findings, she rightly states, are not trivial. In actuality, they are real, and we can use them to help ourselves as we move forward.
The past few years have been extremely difficult, and many of us will be facing uncertainty heading into the new one. In 2022, we can and should use this knowledge to encourage ourselves to help others. It doesn’t have to be financial, we can volunteer and give our time at many of the organisations seeking help and support. The main takeaway from great work like this should be the knowledge that our personal sacrifice can also lead us toward our own happiness and joy too. Way too often we’re tempted to see the potential losses of our sacrifice, but in 2022, hopefully we can see giving as an opportunity to feel good.