Altruism – One of the Keys to Happiness

Pop Quiz: What do you believe will make you happy?  A new car?  A promotion, a raise, perhaps?

While we all have different notions about what defines success and happiness, some common beliefs permeate our culture.  One such belief is the ideal of the American Dream:

The American Dream is belief in the freedom that allows all citizens and residents of the United States to achieve their goals in life through hard work. Today, it often refers to one’s material prosperity
– Wikipedia, American Dream (emphasis mine)

Society promotes the American Dream as an ideal to aspire to – the type of life that we want to live, and the type of life we wish for our children.

Let’s take a step back and ask:  Will such a life of achieving one’s goals and material prosperity ultimately make us happy?

The Disconnect – Achievement and Material Possessions Do Not Make Us Happy

Sadly, the studies don’t appear to bear this out.  While it is true that raising someone from poverty to a certain level of material wealth increases happiness, the American Dream may not lead to long term happiness.  Consider what Tim Kasser writes:

Existing scientific research on the value of materialism yields clear and consistent findings. People who are highly focused on materialistic values have lower personal well-being and psychological health than those who believe that materialistic pursuits are relatively unimportant. These relationships have been documented in samples of people ranging from the wealthy to the poor, from teenagers to the elderly, and from Australians to South Koreans. [Page 22] […]

Almost everyone believes that getting what you want makes you feel good about yourself and your life. Common wisdom…says that if we reach our goals, our self esteem and satisfaction with life should consequently rise… [H]owever, people who are wildly successful in their attempts to attain money and status often remain unfulfilled once they have reached their goal. […]

We  may want a raise, a new car, or greater status… Yet evidence suggests that, beyond having enough money to meet our basic needs for food, shelter, and the like, attaining wealth, possessions, and status does not yield long-term increases in our happiness or well-bring.  Even the successful pursuit of materialistic ideals typically turns out to be empty and unsatisfying. [Page 43] – Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism (emphasis mine)

What Then, Does Buy Happiness?

What if I told you that one of the keys to our happiness is not to continue improving our own lives:  but rather, to make a difference in the lives of others?

This may sound counter intuitive – and that’s ok, because in our culture, it is.  As Dan Gilbert, the author of Stumbling On Happiness says:

When people give of themselves to others, and are recognized for it, they experience lots of happiness and increase in self-esteem.

Interestingly, though, we’ve just done a study that shows that when people are offered the opportunity to do something selfish or something altruistic, they take the selfish option by and large. Culture has told them this is what they should do to be happy, but if you force them to take the altruistic option, they’re much happier.

Altruism is a thing you might resist kicking and screaming—“I want to keep my money; I don’t want to give it away”—but if you give it away, it will probably make you happier than most of the things you could spend it on.
Daniel Gilbert, interview for Shambhala Sun (emphasis mine)

Not Convinced? Further Keys to Happiness – Including Altruism

Still unsure about what makes us happy? Consider this presentation by Martin Seligman delivered at TED.  At the eighteen minute mark he specifically mentions altruism as a key to happiness:  when we do something fun, our happiness is fleeting, but when we are philanthropic, and help another person, that happiness lasts.

The series of various interventions you can embark on to increase your own happiness are at about the fifteen and a half minute mark.  The entire presentation is wonderful, and well worth a watch if you’ve got twenty five minutes to spare.


PS – Another Presentation on Happiness, By Dan Gilbert

I first heard of Dan Gilbert through a fascinating talk he gave at TED, entitled “Why are we happy?”

I have watched the entire presentation three or four times with various friends, and we’ve always loved it.  Enjoy!

Further Reading

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