jar with money and small plant growing inside

Kindness: A Gift That Keeps Giving to our Mental Health

It is a Wednesday, and I am in my social psychology class-virtually of course. The paper under discussion is Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness by Elizabeth Dunn in which Dunn makes a strong case for the emotional and physical benefits of participating in altruistic acts. It turns out that the common trope ‘it’s better to give than receive’ is backed by a significant body of research. The discussion makes me think of my partner who communicates through minor and major forms of altruism. In our early days of dating, I confided in a friend over my suspicion of his unlimited generosity and kindness. It feels foreign to me, The Cynic. My friend reasoned that it must be his ‘love language’, though this was quickly disproved as I continue to observe my partner’s practice of altruism with everyone, even strangers. Dunn’s paper identifies this friction in me, what some might call an ‘ick’, is more of an issue with my approach to life rather than his.

Spending money on other promotes happiness more than spending money on oneself.

One example in Dunn’s paper sticks out at me for its low-stakes, everyday applicability. Participants in this study were 46 ordinary members of the public who were asked to rate their happiness in the morning. Participants were then placed into one of two groups and given an envelope that contained either $5 or $20, which they were instructed to spend by 5pm that day. The 23 participants randomly assigned to the ‘prosocial’ group were told to spend the money on a gift for someone else or make a charitable donation. Whereas the 23 participants allocated to the ‘personal’ group were told to spend the money on a bill, personal expense like lunch or a gift for themselves. At 5pm that day participants were asked to again report their happiness. While both groups reported greater happiness at the end of the day, the prosocial spending condition saw a much greater increase in happiness than the personal spending condition.

It doesn’t need to be grandiose. Small-scale altruism also has profound benefits.

Dunn’s research team concluded spending money on others promotes far greater happiness more than spending money on oneself. The insignificant sum of $5-$20 used in this study also suggests altruism isn’t a hobby exclusively set aside for the aristocrats and wealthy philanthropists. The take home message of this article makes me think of the Italian leather boots I keep placing in my cart and nearly checking out. Perhaps the brown, calf-leather-boots won’t grant me the happiness I believe they will; perhaps those seven hundred dollars (plus shipping) could be better spent elsewhere, ‘pro-socially’.

The production line of happiness could be a never-ending feedback loop if we all make an effort to participate.

According to this week’s prescribed reading, the happiness generated from an act of kindness is contagious from person to person via ‘positive feedback loops’. The feedback loop takes on two forms. There is the intrapersonal loop where the more an individual gives, the more positive the individual feels, which in turn fuels greater happiness in the individual. The other is an interpersonal loop, which explains the more systematic kind of altruism where individuals who witness or benefit from someone’s kindness are more likely to re-enact that kindness towards others. I imagine the two loops like a supply chain for happiness. I find my mind wandering to elves at Christmas time and Santa Clause who someone, somewhere along the line, decided keeps watch over human behaviour all year round, only to decide who has been good and who has been bad. I hold my partner up to this image – he is radiating his joyous, glass-half-full-attitude. He is head elf, and I am nowhere to be seen.

Many of us lack altruistic muscles, but like any hobby, if we practise, we can develop it.

A close friend of mine, who also happens to work for the business I live above, arrives at work one morning and launches into a series of complaints about her partner who is apparently incapable of pro-social spending. He won’t even buy me a coffee, she says. They have been in a steady relationship for two years now, so I am surprised this has never come up. Again, I am reminded of the Dunn’s paper from earlier in the week. I reassure her this is something that can be changed. An article by the BBC addresses my friends concerns. What if altruism doesn’t come naturally to you? the author poses. Apparently, empathy and altruistic spending is highly heritable where one third of our capacity for empathy is dictated by the genes we inherit. They stress empathy can be trained in the same way a person with little athletic ability can become competent, or even master, the game of tennis.

To all my fellow cynics out there, I know explicit joy is easy to ridicule but we are not doing ourselves much good.

The last time I spent a significant amount of money on another person for no reason was a French bistro dinner I created for my partner. It was the first proper altruistic act of mine; I was finally volleying one of his continuous serves. I remember the exciting chaos of that day. I remember feeling both giddy and ridiculous as I tapped my bank card for things I would never usually buy. And when I look back at the dinner, I do not see a hole in my bank account. Instead, I envision warm colours and toothy smiles. It was money I thoroughly enjoyed spending and while it was a sizeable sum for an inconspicuous Sunday in lockdown, it made me feel, well, happy.

There are many ways to engage in the positive psychology of acts of altruism. This could look like any of the following:

  • Paying it forward: treating someone -familiar or stranger- to something simple like a coffee, a cold drink or an ice-cream.
  • Post a sticky note: in your house or workplace, even somewhere in public, with a nice or amusing message.
  • Volunteering: there are plenty of places and people that need an extra hand right now. (I’ve just signed up to pay a visit to a lonely elderly person once a week via my local council)
  • Donating to a charity store: take the time in these lasts weeks of lockdown to collate the things you just don’t use, be honest with yourself here. Instead of throwing it out, drop it at your local opportunity shop.
  • Smile at strangers: I can’t stress this one enough. Be bold and brave, smiling is contagious. I find that smiling at others on my morning walks helps me feel grounded and connected to my local community.
  • Say that compliment: don’t just think it. Let that woman at the petrol station know you adore her coat, tell your sibling they look radiant this morning or let your friend know you’re proud of what they’re doing.

If you’re interested in more strategies and techniques for promoting happiness, you may like to read blog post How to Create Happiness Spikes or How to Lift Your Mood Instantly.