Around Christmas time, all the holiday themed movies about giving and being happy like the Grinch who stole Christmas are played on TV. The Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge learn that giving to others is the true secret to happiness. That got me thinking, does doing nice things for others actually make us happier people? Which method creates happiness or is there a mechanism to feeling happy in the brain? Let’s take a look. (Picture)
Recently I gave a speech in my public speaking class about something I believe in. Through my research for that speech I came across a study written in the Journal of Social Psychology. Acts of Kindness and Acts of Novelty Affect Life Satisfaction, is a study that took 86 participants (38 males 48 females) where half of the group was given the task to complete 5 random acts of kindness over the course of 10 days while the other group was given no instruction. Dr. Anat Bardi, the author of the study does state that the participation was voluntary and that resulted in a shorter turnout than they had anticipated. This would lead to some data that might not be the strongest. After the groups completed their assigned tasks, they took a life satisfaction survey. They did see significant improvements in happiness in the experimental group (the ones doing the acts of kindness), where there was little change in the control group. This is some pretty important information. I think the experiment was constructed well, the study is able to test its hypothesis because helping other people is not a morally questionable area. However, I do believe as stated above that the small sample size of the study is not a good representation of actual data. There was way too little people to justify the relationship between the two variables in an effective way.
Michael Steger, a psychologist at the University of Louisville conducted a similar study in an attempt to differentiate the types of events that cause happiness. In this study, Steger takes 65 undergraduate students and has them complete daily surveys that measure their level of happiness or sadness to the kind of activities they partake in, “Pleasure seeking” activities or “Meaningful” activities. After completing these surveys, the study found that “the more people participated in meaningful activities, the happier they were and the more purposeful their lives felt. Pleasure-seeking behaviors, on the other hand, did not make people happier”. I believe that this study shows that people doing acts that help others out makes them happier individuals, happier than just doing something in an attempt to make us happy. But this study has the same problem as the last, the sample size is too small. These studies would have much greater impact if they involved more people so that the data would be more significant.
Psych Central talks about a survey that has a larger number of participants than these other studies. A Do Good Live Well Survey found that out of 4500 American adults, 89 percent stated that giving in some way to another person improved their wellness or happiness. I think this is a large enough gathering of people to show a significant result. And 89 percent is very high so I think that it entirely possible that helping out others does affect how happy we are.
Through researching this topic, I was not able to find any solid information regarding if there was a mechanism that triggered the feeling of happiness. I did find a section on a page from Explain That Stuff.com that listed some interesting experiments conducted in the research of the neuroscience of happiness. Many of the experiments suggest that different chemical reactions in the brain cause feelings of happiness, but they have not narrowed it to one specific reaction. This may be the case because there are many confounding variables that can be affecting a study of this kind. So many reactions or impulses in the brain along with the outside factors of each of the experiments could cause different results. It isn’t that far off to think that scientists wouldn’t find out this information from one experiment.
In conclusion, I think these studies reveal that the hypothesis of “if helping others makes us happier” is a false positive. All of these studies are providing evidence that something is happening to cause people to be happier after helping people. But there is no specific evidence like a mechanism to describe what it is exactly that makes us happier.