Do good, feel happier

Beth Cooper Howell
Beth Cooper Howell

My friend Dan’s little girl did something so monumental last week that I decided to research her behaviour, as a nod both to science and spreading good cheer.

The thoughtful Grade 2 powerhouse decided one Sunday that the local SPCA needed money for its animals. She roped in a friend, decorated collection tins and hit the neighbourhood with determination and winning smiles.

A short while later, the pair had collected over R500 in cash – and then went shopping, buying food, blankets and treats.

Surprised and grateful SPCA staffers received from the girls bundles of desperately-needed goodies for their cats and dogs. Said Dan’s daughter afterwards: “Mom, that felt good!”

Why did that feel good? And why do the positive reactions to this sweet story feel just as good? A few years ago, University of Louisville psychologist Michael Steger piloted a study examining which behaviour makes people happier – doing good deeds or seeking pleasure.

While dunking a doughnut or going for a pedi is all about you, and nobody else, it seems that ultimately, we’re biologically hard-wired to find more permanent satisfaction in meaningful activities and purposeful lives.

The study asked a group of undergraduates to assess the number of times they took part in “hedonistic, or pleasure-seeking behaviours”, versus things that had meaning, such as doing something purposeful (pursuing a life goal, or complaining less, for example), or being a good listener and a loyal friend.

“They found that the more people participated in meaningful activities, the happier they were and the more purposeful their lives felt,” said Live Science journalist Melinda Wenner. “Pleasure-seeking behaviours, on the other hand, did not make people happier.”

I thought about this simplistically last night. My health goals, for example, are relatively easy to achieve, if I stick to the plan; but last night, in a fit of primordial temptation, I buttered a white bread roll to eat while watching Stranger Things, my hedonistic viewing pleasure of the month.

Five minutes on the lips … was it worth it? No. It might have been, had I done this once in a blue moon and as part of the plan (being spontaneously self-indulgent isn’t a bad thing), but it was just a brainless, greedy act. It didn’t serve any purpose; I didn’t feel a sense of euphoria afterwards, or enjoyment.

“I just felt guilt – and nobody benefits from that.

“A lot of times we think that happiness comes about because you get things for yourself,” said University of Rochester psychologist Richard Ryan, quoted by Wenner.

“But it turns out that in a paradoxical way, giving gets you more, and I think that’s an important message in a culture that’s pretty often getting message to the opposite effect.”

We may not all be as unconditionally giving as Dan’s daughter, but we could start with the small things – like passing on the buttered roll at night and buying a dozen for a charity “do” instead.

Paying it forward with a knock-on kilo-smashing effect? Works for me.

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