Finding happiness can seem like a complex, mystical equation. But increasing your happiness is shockingly simple. Positive psychology researchers who study human behavior have found that happiness comes down to the little things: human connection, spending time outside, smiling (even if you have to fake it at first).
“Aside from just being happy, which obviously feels really good, happiness is connected to all the other things that most students want in life,” says Dr. Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University. “Your happiness in college predicts how likely you are to get a job callback; your happiness as a young person predicts your salary at age 30; happy people get better grades; and happy people are healthier—they are less likely to get a cold when exposed to a virus, and more likely to live longer.”
Yeah, happiness is pretty important.
One of the most powerful and well-researched ways to boost happiness is to help others. Countless studies have shown that giving back (think donating to charity or even helping a friend move into their new apartment) makes people feel good. One 2013 review of 20 years of research on volunteering found that giving back can be a powerful mental health booster, reducing depression and increasing life satisfaction.
But research also shows that how you help matters. In her TED Talk, social psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Dunn breaks down a familiar scenario: She knew that giving to others was supposed to increase happiness—her own research proved it—but she realized that she wasn’t always following her own rules. She didn’t donate that much money to charity, and when she did, she didn’t really feel that much happier. “I started to wonder if maybe there was something wrong with my research or something wrong with me,” she said.
This kind of disconnect is common: While many students talked about the benefits of volunteering in a recent Student Health 101 survey, only 35 percent said they volunteered or donated more than once or twice a year.
Giving back can make you happier—but it matters how you do it
“Back in my lab, we’d seen the benefits of giving [to others] spike when people felt a real sense of connection with those they were helping and could easily envision the difference they were making in those individuals’ lives,” Dr. Dunn said. In other words, it’s not the simple act of giving that makes you feel good; it’s understanding how your charitable activities make a tangible impact that really turns up your happiness levels. “Making an impact and seeing change close to home is the greatest benefit to volunteering within my own community,” agrees Nic R.*, a fourth-year undergraduate at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.
Dr. Dunn gave an example in her TED Talk: In one experiment, she and her fellow researchers gave participants the choice to donate money to UNICEF or Spread the Net—two charities focused on promoting children’s health. The difference? While UNICEF is a massive global fund with many functions, Spread the Net focuses on one simple, impactful task: For every $10 donated, they send a mosquito net to those in need to help prevent malaria in developing countries. “We saw that the more money people gave to Spread the Net, the happier they reported feeling afterward,” Dr. Dunn explained. “This suggests that just giving money to a worthwhile charity isn’t always enough. You need to be able to envision how exactly your dollars are going to make a difference.”
Dr. Dunn’s findings have big implications.
1. Helping others makes us happy
“Study after study shows that happiness comes from being other-oriented—feeling connected to others and doing nice things for those around us,” says Dr. Santos.
2. Feeling connected to others is powerful
“A second thing [Dr. Dunn’s] work shows is the power of connection,” says Dr. Santos. “What we get out of charity is a feeling of connection to other people. And feeling socially connected is one of the biggest predictors of happiness.”
One Today takes the guesswork out of finding causes you care about. Each day, the app highlights a nonprofit or organization and lets you make donations. The cool part? You get to see the impact your donations have through photos and videos from people on the ground working toward the cause.
Girls on the run
Girls on the Run partners with schools around the country to host extracurricular running programs. As a coach, you get to help girls build confidence and teamwork, and boost body positivity, as you train your team for a 5k.
Think of Volunteer Match as Tinder for a good cause. The site matches you with ways to get involved in your community based on your interests, skills, and time.
If anything will really help you feel the tangible impact of your efforts, it’s getting your hands dirty. Volunteer.gov is a database for all the volunteer opportunities with the US Forest service (think forest fire wildlife recovery).
Simple goal, big impact. DonorsChoose connects you with classrooms in need so that you can help provide school supplies.
Laurie Santos, PhD, professor of psychology, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
Action for Happiness. (n.d.). Do things for others. Retrieved from https://www.actionforhappiness.org/10-keys-to-happier-living/do-things-for-others/details
Dunn, E. (2019, April). Helping others makes us happier—but it matters how we do it [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_dunn_helping_others_makes_us_happier_but_it_matters_how_we_do_it#t-39445
Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008, March). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687–1688. doi: 10.1126/science.1150952
Jenkinson, C. E., Dickens, A. P., Jones, K., Thompson-Coon, J., et al. (2013, August 23). Is volunteering a public health intervention? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of volunteers. BMC Public Health, 13(773). doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-13-773
Student Health 101 survey, August 2019.
Vantage Mobility. (2017, April 26). The 6 best websites and apps for volunteering. Retrieved from https://www.vantagemobility.com/blog/best-volunteer-websites-apps