Interview with Elizabeth Dunn
Using your money to even engage in small generous acts like treating your friend to coffee or helping out somebody who's having a rough day by getting them some flowers might actually do something for your own mood. And indeed I think that intuition particularly comes into play when we are just short of gliding through our days and making split second decisions, you're feeling a little bit in a bad mood or want to cheer yourself up. And so I guess, through my work, I've learned to be on the lookout for those kinds of opportunities, where I can not just sort of click donate on a website which is also great, but really have the chance to see the impact that my actions are having.
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Welcome everyone to the Psychology of Wellness. I am really excited to be joined here today by Dr. Elizabeth Dunn. Dr. Dunn is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, where she does really cool work on self-knowledge, happiness, positive psychology, and how mobile technology can help us improve our happiness. She is the co-author of a super fantastic book called Happy Money, The Science of Happier Spending, which she wrote with Dr. Mike Norton. Her work has appeared in all kinds of fantastic journals including, I think, three papers published in science. And she has a really cool TEDx Talk. Liz, thank you for joining us so much today. And so here in the course we’ve been thinking about all the misconceptions we have about happiness. And what we’ve seen in the course so far all these cases where we mispercieve or miswant certain things in our lives. We think we really want better grades or we think we want a very high salary, but the impact on our happiness of those things isn’t as much as we think. And we’ve also seen cases where there is this stuff that does in fact make us happy, where empirical evidence suggests that getting more of that is going to have a big impact. But we don’t have the intuition that we really want that, and so we don’t seek out those activities. And I wanted you to talk today about your work showing that one of these really important things that really can boost happiness and flourishing, is the act of being kind to others. Maybe even the opposite of getting money for ourselves, giving money away to others. So talk a little bit about how you got interested in this question, right? We often think about accumulating wealth for ourselves rather than giving up wealth. How did you get into doing research on that as a focus of happiness?
Yeah, so I first got interested in this question when for the first time in my life I started actually making money. So I got my first real job when I was 26. And I wondered now that I was suddenly a normal income earner, what do I do with all of this money because I was used to living at the poverty level sort of student lifestyle. So being a nerdy psychologist kind of turned to the literature to see what the research literature could tell me about how to use my money in order to be happy. And I was surprised to find there really wasn’t a whole lot out there. There was a few strands, but just not very much. And so I started thinking about some work suggesting that helping others can actually be good for us. So I thought, well, what if we use money to benefit other people? Might that actually promote our happiness more so than using that money to benefit ourselves. So to start to get a handle on that question, we decided to basically make it rain money. And we went out on campus and just literally walked up to people and handed them money. So we gave people either a $5 or a $20 bill, which we asked them to spend by the end of the day. Now there was a catch. So we told half the people they had to spend the money on themselves. We told half the people they had to spend the money to benefit others. And what we found when we called people back at the end of the day was that people who were assigned to take this money and use it to benefit others were actually happier than those who’d been assigned to use that money to help themselves.
And so did that hold across different amounts of money? Does it matter? Do you have to give lots of money to someone else? Did you see any effects of amount of money on these things?
So that study was pretty small. Much smaller than the studies that I would run now.
And so we weren’t able to detect any differences between getting $5 versus getting $20, didn’t seem to matter that much. What was interesting though, even that very small study was that even just giving people $5 to spend on somebody else made a difference to their happiness on that day. So this suggests that although it might be great to make big changes on how you spend your money, making even little changes. Using your money to even engage in small generous acts like treating your friend to coffee or helping out somebody who’s having a rough day by getting them some flowers might actually do something for your own mood. That’s big enough for us to be able to detect.
That’s really cool. And that is one of these cases, I love this work because it absolutely doesn’t fit with my intuition. My intuition if I have a bad day is I’m going to go out and get a treat or I’m going to go get a pedicure. I’m going to do something nice for myself. I’m never thinking, let me get my best friend a pedicure because that would make me feel a lot better. Was that your subject’s intuition as well?
Yeah, we actually asked people, if we just gave you some money and had you spend it, how would you like to spend it? People generally do seem to have share your intuition that that pedicure option sounds great and yeah, I’ll take the money for myself. Thank you ever so much. And indeed I think that intuition particularly comes into play when we are just short of gliding through our days and making split second decisions, you’re feeling a little bit in a bad mood or want to cheer yourself up. It’s very natural I think to want to use our resources to do stuff for ourselves. And again, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think spending money on ourselves can be great and there’s some good ways to do that. But I think we may overlook this opportunity to buy happiness by helping others.
And another thing about your work is that you show that this isn’t just isolated to say UBC students that you studied. This seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon. Do you want to talk about the follow ups that you did?
Yeah, so when we started doing this work, it was all conducted in North America. And it was actually when I was sharing this work with the media and with students that people kept asking me, okay, but you’re looking at fairly well off people. Individuals who have a fair bit of disposable income. So is this just something to do with sort of people having extra money and not knowing what to do with it? And I took that issue pretty seriously and so what we decided to do was to see if we could find the same effects in kind of corners of the world where people really were struggling to meet their own basic needs. And actually my husband helped find me collaborators. He was doing some work in Uganda at the time and actually just went up to people and asked them to help get involved with running the study. And so we developed this team of collaborators in Uganda and eventually South Africa. And we were able to run parallel experiments across different countries. And what we see is that even when people are really struggling a little bit, when they don’t always have enough money to buy food for themselves, even in those places, we still see that people feel happier when they use money to benefit others.
Awesome, so even if the money that you’re dealing with isn’t a disposable income, even when those purchases for the self could be really impactful on the self, you still get more hand of happiness bang for your buck spending on others.
Right, and I think it’s so surprising because I think many of us kind of tell ourselves I’ll give to charity once I am making more money. Or other people, the people that are a little wealthier than me, they should definitely give. But I just need to look out to myself. And I think this research is kind of a nice wake up call and saying, hey, these people in Uganda who report on our surveys that they were struggling to find money to pay for malaria medication, even they are getting this emotional boost from using money to benefit others. So we don’t need to wait until we are making more money. This is something that you can do today and you can do in small ways.
That’s awesome. So this is nice work showing that spending on others actually makes you happier than spending on the self. But you also have work suggesting that even focusing on money at all might not be the best thing to focus on. Or kind of prioritizing your time towards earning potential might not be as good as prioritizing your time to just having time. Do you want to talk about some of the time affluence work?
In our recent work, we have been really interested in these constant trade offs that people are navigating between time and money. So if you think about it, most of the time you could have more money, but you probably have to give up some of your time. Or you can have more time, but it might cost you some money. And so we wondered whether there’s sort of chronic dispositional differences, whereby some individuals are more likely to be willing to give up their time to have more money, and some are willing to give up their money to have more time. And indeed, when we’ve now conducted very broad surveys, nationally representative surveys within North America, at least. And what we see is that the population of North America seems to be pretty split down the middle.
That about half of the people seem to prioritize money, and about half seem to prioritize time when sort of faced with these trade offs. And so you can see the value in trading off one against the other depending on the situation. But sort of dispositionally, when we look across situations, what we see is that individuals who chronically prioritize time over money, who are willing to give up their money to have more time or to say work fewer hours in order to have more free time. We see that they are happier than individuals who prioritize money, and kind of aren’t willing to give up their money to have more time.
Excellent, so in some sense, time makes you more affluent than wealth makes you affluent, or at least makes you happier in some sense.
Yeah, and so what is definitely clear is that both time affluence and material affluence matter for well-being. So I think sometimes people hear sort of a little sound bite about my work and they think that it means, money can’t buy happiness. And that’s not true. Money can buy happiness. People who have more money are happier. But also people who have more time are happier, up to a point, right? So people who say that they feel really busy and pressed for time, like they haven’t had enough time to do the things that are important to them, tend to be less happy. And interestingly, the wealthier you get, the less likely you are to feel like you have enough time. And that seems to be both a function of the objective realities of wealthy people, for example, working more. But also this sort of subjective perception that as your time becomes more economically valuable, you tend to view it as scarce because what is valuable is scarce. And so what we’re seeing then is that perhaps people need to kind of re-jiggle their priorities a little bit. At least one set of basic material needs are met, it may be worthwhile to think about prioritizing time.
That’s fantastic. And so throughout that course, we keep hearing that to do this we sometimes have to put these intentional practices in place, right? We might have this intuition to just spend all our time making as much money as possible, or that we need to buy things for ourselves when we’re having a bad day. But those intuitions are wrong. And we talk about how you need to put intentional practices in place to do this better. Your mind is not going to tell you to do it automatically, so set your habits up so you can do this to maximize your happiness. Now, have you taken some these research to heart? Have you started in your own life trying to put these practices in place for either kind of for social spending or for time affluence.
Yeah, I mean, so first up I would say it really is hard sometimes to put these ideas into practice. So I have to admit when I started doing all this for social spending research, I was meeting with my tax accountant and he started tapping the line where it said how much I donated to charity. He’s like, gosh, I sure have seen your name in the media a lot.
That’s the value of charity. I was like, I guess a little bit more. And so I think I have tried to alter my approaches a little bit. For one thing I think in our charitable giving work, one thing that we see is that charitable giving doesn’t just automatically make people happier all the time. It really depends on how you do it. And so charitable giving opportunities that make you feel more connected to others, charitable giving opportunities where you can really see the impact that your generosity is having, tend to have the biggest emotional boost. And are therefore most likely to be self-reinforcing. And so I’ve tried, in my own life, to try to seek out some of those opportunities. So for example, with a group of friends because I live in Canada, we’re able to bring over a family of Syrian refugees. And basically kind of help them adjust to life, and provide for them for the first year that they’re here. And so that’s a kind of opportunity where I think it’s very emotionally rewarding. Because it’s a group of friends working together to do something that we find really meaningful, where we’ll get to see the difference that our actions are having. And so I guess, through my work, I’ve learned to be on the lookout for those kinds of opportunities, where I can not just sort of click donate on a website which is also great, but really have the chance to see the impact that my actions are having.
And that kind of fits with your work, too, right? Because in the original studies, even in the $5 studies, give this to a friend or do something nice for a friend. Didn’t you find that doing nice things for others is boosting your social connection, and that might be one mediating factor that leads to increased happiness, is that right?
It does seem to be one very important factor, yeah. So the more that people are getting a sense of social connection from their giving, the happier they turn out to be.
Excellent, cool. And so how about on the time affluence side, has that work led you to kind of prioritize slightly differently?
Yeah, I struggled with the time affluence.
So one of the reasons that I’m doing the course, is I tell my students is that I can notice myself being in some ways a hypocrite about this, right? Where I know this work really well. I know how you build in habits. But then I look in my own life and I’m not necessarily pursuing habits or kind of doing them because they take this intentional work. So don’t feel bad, you’re just modeling. Modeling a thing or two.
One thing I do is that I have thought fairly intentionally about the parts of my day that are the most frustrating or least happy. And I try to ask myself, can I use money to eliminate those moments of my day? Because that’s likely to be a really good use of money based on our research. And for me, I am the worst cleaner ever. Cleaning as my husband will be quick to point out, he’s great at cleaning. He can clean the kitchen like that. For me, it will take an hour to do a terrible job. And so I’ve decided it’s just worth it to pay for a house cleaner, even though it seems a little bit indulgent. It takes out that terrible part of my day, terrible part of my week. So it’s a way that I can use money in order to buy happiness.
Yeah, and use money to buy extra time, right? because it’s not the time that you spend cleaning, too, as well.
But you’re also a surfer, right? So I feel like you must have some time off or at least on your web page, it mentions you being a surfer, so yeah.
I think My colleagues would say that I’m okay at maintaining the work life balance thing. But it’s still challenging, right? Because I think we forget how busy we’re going to be in the future. So it’s easy, I always think, I’m too busy to do that tomorrow, but in two weeks I’ll definitely have time. And so that’s one other thing that I’ve learned from my own work and from other’s work is to try to think about, okay, if I don’t feel like I have time to do this this week, I probably won’t feel like I have time to do it in six months. And so trying to restrain myself a little bit in terms of how many things I take on.
Perfect, perfect well, it’s good to hear some aspects of the work being put into practice. But also the example that we keep talking about in the course, where this is hard. It takes intentional effort, and you have to kind of go against. Even if you know this work, it’s hard to kind of make that part of your intuitions. So thank you so much. Again, this was Professor Elizabeth Dunn. You should check out her book, Happy Money, The Science of Happier Spending. Thanks so much, Liz.
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