Giving makes us happy

Thomas W. Nielsen, University of Canberra
The Canberra Times, June 14, 2010.

There is enough research on the topic to be concerned with the health and happiness of our youth. Obesity and allergies have been on the rise for some time. Mental health problems also affect a lot more now. Depression and suicide rates have risen steadily in the past 60 years. Violence, anti-social behaviour and binge drinking among young people is now so prevalent as to be viewed by some as the norm rather than the exception. Moreover, all of the above phenomena are now being observed in younger age brackets across the full spectra of socio-economic strata and demographics.

What does all this mean for educators, parents and society in general? Surgery for obesity seems extreme, and curative therapy against depression is uncertain at best. Bans against alcohol and other unhealthy practices often seem to make those activities even more interesting to young people. Working with teachers and parents on a regular basis, I can also testify to the fact that there is no magic way with which to cure stressed carers of children either.

On top of this, there are those who argue that efforts to increase children’s happiness assume that happiness is always a good thing, and it is true that there are studies that show that happy children can be less objective and overly preoccupied with self-gratification.

To understand all of the above, Martin Seligman’s work is important, highlighting that happiness is not just about self-gratification inspired happiness. He identifies three types of happy living: the ‘pleasurable’ life, when we gratify our senses (e.g. enjoying an ice cream); the ‘engaged’ life, when we engage our signature strengths in activities that makes us lose track of time (e.g. sport); and the ‘meaningful’ life, which is when we are something to others (e.g. peer tutoring). Seligman’s research shows that while sensory pleasure and engaging activities are not to be dismissed, we enjoy higher and more steady levels of happiness and recuperate more easily from trauma when our lives also contain meaning.

In this understanding we notice that the studies that show negative effects of happiness primarily focus on the type of happiness that comes from pleasure, in which case it also makes sense that we can become more selfish if exposed to pleasure, because it actually focuses us in our own senses. Even happiness deriving from engagement can, on its own, house an inherent risk of making us more insensitive to others (e.g. a teenager who is engaged in a computer game for hours). However, with happiness that stem from having meaning in our lives, which is defined as deriving from being something to others, we notice that this level of wellbeing by definition connects us to others.

Understanding that being something to others can connect the different levels of happiness with the most important level of meaning, we also begin to understand that ‘happiness’, per se, is not really what we are after in educational settings. What we are after is a type of wellbeing, as defined by having a meaningful life, and to which many students have never been exposed. Since the Second World War, spending power has tripled in most western countries, while levels of happiness and psychological wellbeing have remained flat and even reduced, according to some sources. As Kathleen Townsend notes, many teenagers do not want to be something to others, most likely because many of them have never experienced enough opportunities to give to others.

Yet school students who are exposed to having to give to others end up volunteering more afterwards. In schools, giving is also a strong predictor of increased mental and physical health into adulthood and reduced adolescent depression and suicide risk. One study (Oman & Thoresen 2000) even found that giving reduces mortality significantly; it followed almost 2000 individuals over the age of 55 for five years, and those who volunteered for two or more organisations had a 44 per cent lower likelihood of dying – 14 per cent lower than those who exercised four times a week.

In a word, one of the healthiest things we can do is to give, as this leads us to being healthier, happier and possibly even to living longer. For this reason, children need to give on a daily basis. Many children have everything they can point at – except daily opportunities to be something for others. Yet there is increasing research evidence supporting the view that being something for others creates unparalleled wellbeing and resilience in children.

In this view, we also realize that things like standardised testing, normative assessments and school league tables are only very limited, and often constricting, measures of quality education. If meaningful wellbeing and social cohesion are the horses that pull the cart of academic competencies, then it seems that governments around the world are trying to put the cart in front of the horses.

Note: this is an excerpt of a chapter, currently under review for publication in the book, Social Ecology – Creativity, Transformation & Sustainability, Editor Dr. David Wright

Picture: “Sharing love and happiness makes life more beautiful” by Purple Sherbet Photography © 2013.