Why Is Happiness So Hard To Maintain? Sometimes, life can feel like being stuck on a treadmill. No matter how hard you try to get happier, you end up back where you started. What's going on here? We kick off our annual You 2.0 summer series with happiness researcher Elizabeth Dunn, who explains how to fight the treadmill feeling.

You 2.0: Our Pursuit of Happiness

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From NPR, this is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Summer is usually a time when we relax and reset. But this year, with a pandemic and a recession, unwinding seems out of reach. It feels like an accomplishment if we even know what day of the week it is. Every day feels like Blurs-day (ph).


VEDANTAM: So for this year's You 2.0, our annual series about reinvention, we are focused on reframing our circumstances. We may not be able to change some of the most important facts of our lives right now, but we can change how we experience them. These episodes will give us new ways to think about loss and empathy. They'll help us set goals that we can actually reach and take stock of the bigger picture.


VEDANTAM: We start our series with the pursuit of happiness and a story that takes us back to 2008. Psychologist Liz Dunn was invited to go on a vacation. The man she had just started dating and three of his high school buddies wanted to go on a road trip with their girlfriends. They planned to drive an RV from their home in Vancouver to the Arctic Ocean. Liz said yes. It seemed like an adventure. It sounded like fun. It felt romantic. It was a mistake.

ELIZABETH DUNN: I would rank it as probably top three worst vacations ever.

VEDANTAM: One by one, the other girlfriends decided that an RV trip to go swimming in the Arctic Ocean was not their idea of fun. When the RV rolled out of town, it was just Liz and four men who thought they were having the time of their lives.

DUNN: So it was kind of like living through one endless day on this highway that never ended with four Canadian men who were increasingly driving me crazy.

VEDANTAM: That road trip led Liz to important insights about human nature. Today we look at how things that start out fun can turn miserable and how our minds can take miserable experiences and remember them as fun.


VEDANTAM: Anticipation, memory and the winding road to happiness, this week on HIDDEN BRAIN.

Elizabeth Dunn is a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia. Along with Michael Norton, she's the author of "Happy Money: The Science Of Happier Spending." Liz told me that at one point in the interminable journey to the Arctic Ocean, she decided she'd had enough. She tried to escape.

DUNN: Yeah, I think this was one of my low moments of my life. Like, my smartphone didn't work there because we were so far north. So I sought out a payphone. This was shortly after the waste disposal system in the RV had sprung a leak. And I was just like, I am over this vacation. And I called Air Canada. And I said, how can you get me out of here? And they said, well, we can't get you back to Vancouver, my home, but we can get you to Edmonton. And I was like, can you put that ticket on hold for me - because at that very moment, all I wanted was to get out of there.

VEDANTAM: Did you actually manage to catch one of those flights? What happened?

DUNN: You know, by the time I got back from making this phone call, the guys had realized that I was losing it. And they made a plan to try to make things better for me (laughter). So one of my friends, who's a cancer researcher, like, took me aside, and he's like, let's have a nice science talk. That will make you feel better. You know, and other guys were like, why don't we, like, read women's magazines and talk about them? Like, they had somewhat misguided ideas of what was going to be helpful. But, like, they were really trying. And so then I was like, OK, you know, they convinced me. Like, it's almost time to turn around. Like, you can do this. And, you know, in the end, I did make it through, but I will never go back.

VEDANTAM: When the waste disposal system sprang a leak, I understand this is how you derived a nickname on the trip. Tell me about that.

DUNN: Yeah, so the guy's nicknamed me Blackwater Liz. Blackwater refers to waste disposal in an RV. Let me be clear; I had nothing to do with the RV waste disposal system springing a leak. But for whatever reason, like, this name stuck to me. And they still refer to me that way. Like, this has not gone away.

VEDANTAM: And did you actually go - did you see the Arctic Ocean? Did you go swimming in it? What did you do when you got there?

DUNN: Yeah, so we did - when we finally made it to the Arctic Ocean, we did get to go swimming in the Arctic Ocean. We got to see belugas in the wild, so that was, you know, very cool and very special.


VEDANTAM: So here's the question that arises from this whole trip. You were obviously miserable through much of the trip. But looking back on it now, do you sort of think of the trip as being a miserable experience? Or do you think of it as being a rewarding experience?

DUNN: Well, I think that it makes a good story. And so I appreciate that. Like, it's this aspect of my life that, you know, was very unique. Not many people have swum in the Arctic Ocean or gotten to hang out with belugas in the wild. And so it was this unusual experience that contributed to sort of my overall life story. It also is this really powerful source of bonding for me and those four Canadian men, you know, one of whom I ended up marrying. And so we still, you know, talk about it. When one of us is going through a rough time, we pull up pictures from that trip and talk about it. So we really enjoy the memory of it. But, you know, I still remember that I was not having a good time while it was happening.

VEDANTAM: So there's been this really rich debate in the field of psychology, but also just as people have thought about their own lives, about the value of spending your money on buying things versus buying experiences. And I'm wondering when you think about an experience like your trip to the Arctic Ocean, how does that dovetail or contradict this larger body of research that has looked at the differences between experiences and things?

DUNN: Well, the research on the value of buying experiences really suggests that a lot of the benefit that we get from buying experiences comes after they're over. So, you know, one of the great things about experiential purchases is that we can reminisce about them. And I really do enjoy reminiscing about this experience. Of course, you know, many experiences are enjoyable in the moment, but that's not necessarily where the real value of experiential purchases comes from. Instead, the big sort of benefit of experiential purchases over material purchases seems to come after they're over, which to me is pretty interesting because, you know, material things stick around. So I am not, like, a frequent clothes shopper. So I literally still have clothing that I had on that trip, right? Like, that stuff has stuck around. That experience, of course, is gone. It's, you know, long since over. But, you know, it lives in my memory.

And it turns out memory is a great place to store stuff, right? So when we store stuff in our closet, it kind of gets outdated. It gets torn up over time. But our memories have this amazing property of being able to make things more positive or at least funnier over time because we've retold this story so many times. Like, just starting to think about it kind of makes me laugh. And so that's kind of the magic of experiential purchases.


VEDANTAM: Perhaps you've noticed the magic of experiential purchases in your own life. And in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps you are wistful about their absence. So many of the events that marked the summer - baseball games, concerts, overseas travel - are not an option for Americans right now. Even banal outings that we used to look at with indifference or dread - running an errand to the mall or bringing our kids to soccer practice - these things are now tinged with nostalgia.

These sorts of feelings have been accentuated by the pandemic, but they predate it as well. Liz cites a study that tracks students going on a three-week bike trip across California. During the trip, 61% reported that the trip was worse than they expected. But after the trip was over, only 11% of the students said the trip was disappointing.

DUNN: You know, our memories are great at sort of making the best of things. And, you know, in my case, the Arctic trip was, like, so far from the kind of vacation that I would like to take that it's hard for my mind to completely bridge the giant chasm between, like, my ideal vacation and that trip. But, like, most other vacations that we take have a much smaller - sort of a little gap between what we ideally would have wanted and, you know, the way things actually work out. So, you know, maybe you go to Hawaii and it rains for several days, but, like, your memory can kind of focus on the days that you were out on the beach and forget about those days you were stuck inside. Or you can think about how it is actually kind of fun, you know, sitting around eating salt and vinegar chips and playing cards. And so when there's a pretty small gap between how we expected to feel and how we actually felt, that's where our minds can kind of jump in and the sort of positive expectations that tend to surround our experiences can actually sort of paint over the little bits of negativity that might have occurred during the experience itself.

VEDANTAM: I'm also struck by the fact that when experiences are strongly negative, in fact, when we have, perhaps not traumatic experiences, but when we have negative experiences, like your trip to the Arctic - it had all these downsides - when you look back on it, there is something sweet about it. I mean, you cite the Roman philosopher Seneca, who said the things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember. And there is some truth in that - isn't there? - that once you've been through something really difficult, there's actually a special pleasure that comes from thinking back on it.

DUNN: Absolutely. I mean, one experience that really stands out to me is on that Arctic road trip, we did this thing - there's this bar in the Canadian Arctic you can go to, and you do a shot while having pressed up against your lips the toe of a dead man. And this is, like, this classic Sourtoe Cocktail experience that people like to have. And let me tell you, it is not pleasant. Like, having a dead toe up against your face, I can't recommend it. But we still have this fun memory of this thing we all did together. And it's fun to sort of remember and reflect on it. And I feel this real connection with the Arctic because I had this quintessential experience of the Sourtoe Cocktail.

VEDANTAM: As a non-Canadian, forgive me for asking what seems like an obvious question, but how does a bar obtain a dead person to get a dead toe pressed up against you while you're having your cocktail?

DUNN: So there's this whole legend surrounding it about, like, the first guy that decided to donate his toe to the bar. But then it became such a tradition and a legacy that now they have a long lineup of toes, people who are waiting for the, you know, honor of their toe being taken upon their death to be included in this magical cocktail experience.


VEDANTAM: So we're going to talk a little bit later in the conversation about some of the wise and brilliant things that Canada does, but I'm actually going to put this one on the other list, Liz, if you don't mind. It doesn't seem to be my cup of tea.

DUNN: (Laughter) But you say that, but then if you experience it, you'll have this great story, and you'll remember it fondly.


VEDANTAM: So you've made a case, really, in the last few minutes of why it's smart to spend money on experiences, that in some ways, we anticipate experiences very strongly. We look back on experiences very fondly. They give us great stories to tell. I want to spend a moment talking about the potential benefits of spending money on physical objects as well. You once wrote a study titled The Unsung Benefits of Material Things, where you analyzed people's satisfactions with material purchases and experiential purchases. What did you find, Liz?

DUNN: Yeah, so this study came about because after I wrote my book "Happy Money" and the first chapter was called Buy Experiences, I gave it out to a bunch of the grad students in my department. And this very smart young grad student named Aaron Weidman came to see me. And he's like, you know, I love the book. I think chapter one was wrong. He's like, I think this whole buy experiences recommendation is, you know, bunk. And so I was like, OK, great, sure. I just published this book, and you think the first chapter is completely wrong. Let's talk about that.


DUNN: So we ended up teaming up to conduct this study. And his insight was that previous studies had captured how people felt about their past experiential purchases and their past material purchases. But they hadn't necessarily captured people right in the moment as they were enjoying, you know, meaningful material and experiential purchases.

So Aaron was really dedicated, and he actually devoted his Christmas vacation to studying this issue. So he conducted this study where we asked people to tell us about either a material thing or an experience that they had received for Christmas. And he began texting them three to five times a day every single day starting on Christmas Day. And he followed up with them, you know, every single day for two weeks. And one of the things that he discovered was that people did actually get more frequent happiness from material things. So material things had this unsung benefit, which was that, you know, they are kind of always around.

So for example, I have a leather jacket that I really like. And every time I put it on, I kind of feel a little bit happier. You know, I'm not, like, freaking out. I'm just, like, a little bit happier. It was that sort of little small boost in momentary happiness that these previous studies had kind of overlooked. And so that's what we saw in our study was that material things do provide this small but frequent boost to happiness.

VEDANTAM: And in contrast, experiences in some ways might give you the tallest peaks, right? In other words, they might be less frequent, but the peaks are going to be much higher.

DUNN: Exactly. So when we asked people about the intensity of happiness that they were experiencing, we saw that these experiential Christmas gifts gave people much bigger peaks, much more intense bursts of happiness, whereas the material things gave people this sort of lower dose but more frequent feeling of happiness. So in that sense, you might think of it as, like, two flavors of ice cream. You know, experiences are like gelato with this intense burst of happiness, but then it's gone. And then on the flip side, you know, material things are more like a big thing of froyo, where they're not, like, as amazing in any one moment, but, like, you can have it for a while. And so, you know, in that sense, I think material things maybe got a little bit of a bad rap.

VEDANTAM: So maybe instead of saying that experiences make you happy and things don't, it might be wiser to say that experiences give you, as you say, a different kind of happiness. They give you more anticipation, better memories. But often in the moment, things can give you many small moments of pleasure. And part of the question about happiness is, what kind of happiness do you prefer?

DUNN: Exactly. So do you want those sort of low-level moments of contentment that material things might provide? Or do you want these, like, bursts of joy that you might get from experiences? Now, from what I've said so far, it does seem like experiences and material things are kind of on an equal playing field, and it sort of depends what flavor of happiness you want. But we actually also followed up with our same participants six weeks after Christmas. By this point, they must have been really sick of us, but they still filled out another survey for us. And, you know, we asked them how they were feeling about their Christmas gift at that point. And what we found was that six weeks after Christmas, people were significantly more satisfied with their experiential gift than people were with material gifts.

And so this was really interesting to us because, again, it suggests even though the experiential purchases or experiential gifts, in essence, were gone by that point - like, most people had already, you know, enjoyed their spa day or gone to the hockey game or whatever it was that they'd received for Christmas, but they actually felt more satisfied with it six weeks after Christmas compared to people who had gotten these material gifts. So in that way, you know, I think Aaron was right, my grad student was right that, like, the advice to buy experiences might be a little too simple. But I feel like I kind of had the last laugh in saying yeah, but by six weeks afterwards, like, experiences still win.


VEDANTAM: When we come back, why the pursuit of happiness can feel like being on a treadmill and how to get off it.


VEDANTAM: If you and your partner have worked from home in recent months, perhaps you've noticed something surprising. The person with whom you share your life becomes someone different when he's with his co-workers. He's more upbeat. He uses words like objectives and deliverables. He seems to laugh harder at other people's jokes. In fact, he seems to be saving the best version of himself for people who arguably matter less than the people with whom he shares his home.

Liz Dunn first noticed something similar when she was in grad school. She had a boyfriend, Benjamin (ph), and he did something that she found pretty annoying.

DUNN: So when Benjamin was in a little bit of a bad mood, he would come to me, his longtime girlfriend, and he would act kind of cranky and grumpy. But if we happened to run into a random acquaintance or even a stranger, Benjamin would perk right up acting all pleasant and cheerful as social norms demand. And what I noticed is that afterward, he would actually be in a much better mood. As a result of his own sort of pleasant, cheerful behavior, he would get himself into a better mood. And so, you know, I started to wonder, is this just some weird, quirky thing about Benjamin? Or is this part of the way that humans behave? And so I decided to bring in about a hundred romantic couples into the lab to try to get to the bottom of this.

VEDANTAM: Liz recorded some of the people chatting with their actual partners and some chatting with a stranger. Here's a clip of two people who are in a relationship.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Is that what you wrote about?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh (laughter). It's not ruined.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What if I was like, today I lost $55...

VEDANTAM: And here's a clip of two strangers.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: How long have you guys been going out?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Seven months. How about you guys?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A year? And you just met him here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah, yeah. We live in the same dorm.


DUNN: What stands out to me is that when the romantic couple is talking, you hear this sort of low-level, sort of mildly cranky kind of tone, whereas when the strangers are talking, they have this very cheerful, positive, upbeat lilt, which is, you know, what we expect. So in North America, at least, there's this strong demand to act pleasant and cheerful when you're talking to someone that you haven't met before or don't know well.

And so, you know, what we see in our study is that when people engage in this positive self-presentation, acting all sort of pleasant and cheerful around someone they don't know, it actually has benefits for their own mood in a way that they themselves don't seem to foresee. It provides this unexpected boost to our moods when we just act pleasant and cheerful for the benefit of somebody else.

VEDANTAM: The fact that we tend to present our best sides to strangers rather than to people who inhabit our lives is very sad. But it turns out it's not just our partners that we take for granted. We do this with nearly everything in our lives. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least a certain amount of indifference. Can you talk about this idea, Liz?

DUNN: Yeah, so this is one of the most important ideas across all of happiness research, which is that whatever we have, we tend to get used to it. So no matter how awesome our lives might be or what wonderful things come into our lives, we tend to get used to them over time. And the pleasure that they provide gradually diminishes.

VEDANTAM: This has sometimes been called the hedonic treadmill. Give me a sense of the origin of that phrase. What is that phrase trying to communicate?

DUNN: Yeah, so the hedonic treadmill is such a sad phrase, right? It conveys this idea that we're sort of stuck. No matter how hard we try to get happier, we can't. We're kind of on this treadmill where we always end up kind of back where we started. So try to run faster, work harder to get happier, and it doesn't do any good.


VEDANTAM: So the metaphor of the treadmill here, of course, is the idea that you're running but it's still, you're staying in place even as you're running. In other words, it's not changing how happy you're feeling, even though it feels like you're doing things that should make you happier. So you and others have thought of ways to fight this psychological phenomenon, this phenomenon of the hedonic treadmill. And you've drawn inspiration from a marketing trick by McDonald's. Here's a clip of a McDonald's customer talking about the McRib.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The McRib is so good. Here's the thing, right? It's amazing. It's the best thing ever made. Why would you get rid of it? I don't like it. I need it. But it's not going to stick around.

VEDANTAM: What's going on here, Liz?

DUNN: So the McRib is a McDonald's sandwich that is only available for a limited time. So at the height of its popularity, McDonald's will pull it off the menu, which at first glance seems a bit counterintuitive. If you have a product that's selling really well, you'd think you'd want to keep it available. But, in fact, by yanking it away, McDonald's can actually make it more desirable.

VEDANTAM: And how is this connected to the idea of the hedonic treadmill and the psychological insight about how to overcome it?

DUNN: Well, it turns out that one way to fight hedonic adaptation or get off the hedonic treadmill is to deprive ourselves a little bit, so to not have constant access to the things that we like. So on the one hand, it seems like the recipe for happiness should be to have all the things that we like abundantly available to us all the time. But, in fact, what that's a recipe for is massive hedonic adaptation where we just get used to the things that we like and no longer derive as much pleasure from them.


DUNN: In some of my research, what we've discovered is that actually taking things away from people for a period of time can increase their capacity to enjoy those things.

VEDANTAM: What kind of things have you taken away from people to see the effects it has on them?

DUNN: So in my lab, we buy a lot of chocolate. Chocolate is a pretty good reliable source of happiness. Most of our research participants really like chocolate and get enjoyment from eating it. So in one study that we ran, we brought people into the lab and asked them to eat a little bit of chocolate. And then we sent one group of students away with a big bag of chocolate and asked them to eat as much as they comfortably could over the ensuing week. Meanwhile, we asked another group of students to please refrain from eating any chocolate for a whole week. And finally, we just left this third group of students without any special chocolate-related instructions. Then we brought everybody back into the lab a week later. And once again, we had them eat some chocolate.

Now, what we see across most of the sample is that people enjoyed the chocolate significantly less the second time than they had the first time. And this little, tiny finding kind of captures the sad reality of the human experience, which is that the more we have something, the less we tend to appreciate it.

But there was one group of people that enjoyed the chocolate at least as much the second time as they had the first. And this was the people who had been asked to give up the chocolate in between. So what this suggests is that taking a break from things that we enjoy can actually sort of renew our capacity to appreciate them.

VEDANTAM: So there are people, many of them, of course, in Silicon Valley, who are taking this idea to its logical conclusion. If scarcity can produce greater happiness, let's engineer scarcity. Take a listen to this clip about someone talking about a dopamine fast.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The rules are no pleasure. Anything you find pleasurable, you're not allowed to do. Examples, electronics - no electronics, no computers, no iPods, no phones - no food, no coffees, no teas, no juice, et cetera. Just water.

VEDANTAM: In other words, Liz, everything you thought would make you happy actually makes you unhappy. And everything you thought would make you unhappy actually makes you happy.

DUNN: Yeah. I mean, I would say taking a break from all of those things - as terrible as it sounds to me to take a break from coffee, taking a break from these things probably won't make you happy while you're abstaining from them. So I'm not arguing that, you know, there's something really pleasurable about having nothing, right? Instead, the idea is that we can kind of restart our happiness systems a little bit by taking a break from the things that we like.

I would not advocate, you know, that we should all, like, move into the woods and give up every kind of pleasure in life. That's not the recipe for happiness. But, you know, the recipe for happiness does involve figuring out how to reset ourselves a little bit so that we appreciate the things that we have started to take for granted. And so that can mean - you know, I think long-distance relationships are potentially interesting in that way because, you know, you have these breaks where you're not able to be with your romantic partner. So my husband went to Africa for six months. And I really missed him, and I can still sort of channel that, even though we're around each other all the time. Even just thinking back to that long period where we were separated can help me appreciate that he's, you know, around all the time now.

VEDANTAM: Is it possible that experiences are less likely to produce the hedonic treadmill precisely because they are, in fact, rarer? You can't go to the Arctic Circle every weekend, so investing in experiences rather than things automatically forces you into a form of scarcity that you don't have when you're thinking about material purchases or material objects.

DUNN: Absolutely because one of the things that's interesting about experiences is that they feel unique. You know, my Arctic road trip feels very unique to me. But even going to, like, say, a Springsteen concert like I did in grad school - obviously Bruce Springsteen plays all over the world. Many, many people have seen him. But that concert for me feels like, oh, well, that was really special, and I'm never going to have that exact experience again. And so, you know, our experiences take on this property of uniqueness that makes it harder to adapt to them, whereas material things, you know, they're really easy to compare. You know you could replace them with something probably even better. And so material things may be more subject to this problem of the hedonic treadmill than experiences.


VEDANTAM: Many of us, you and I included, are working from home or sequestering ourselves in some ways. And many of the things we took for granted - you know, going to work, meeting people, going to a coffee shop, going to a restaurant - these things have been taken away from us. In some ways, is this going to serve as a mechanism to fight hedonic adaptation?

DUNN: So my prediction is that the terrible COVID-19 pandemic, as awful as it's been, might provide us with a little bit of a happiness reset. So my personal experience, something I've been noticing - you know, as a happiness researcher, I tend to pay attention to my own experiences, and what I've been noticing is that, you know, really simple things that I had been taking for granted I am so appreciative of now because most of the things that I really like in my daily life have been taken away. So for me, I at least have been finding that, you know, having limited access to things that I enjoy is really renewing my tendency to appreciate them.


VEDANTAM: Taking time to savor the experiences we've had in the past and whatever experiences are currently available is one way to maximize happiness during a very difficult time. Coming up, we look at another way to increase well-being at a moment when many people are experiencing hardship. Stay with us. You're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is NPR.


VEDANTAM: Whoever said money can't buy happiness didn't know where to shop. You've probably heard some version of this quote about the relationship between money and happiness. Philosophers, novelists and TV writers have all wrestled with the question of whether we can buy our way to bliss. Over the years, researchers have tried to test the relationship between spending and contentment. One method they've used is to give money to volunteers and tell them to spend it either on themselves or others. Social psychologist Liz Dunn says most people expect - no surprise - to get more happiness from spending the money on themselves.

DUNN: And, you know, it's kind of interesting because I do get letters from people saying, you know, why did scientists need to come along and do this research? Like, this idea of helping others is in the Bible, or my mom, you know, told me this. But the interesting thing is that when you bring money into the picture, people just don't seem to realize that that $20 bill in their pocket might be better spent on somebody else than on themselves.

VEDANTAM: So some years ago, you were sitting down with an accountant and going over your taxes. And the accountant stops on the line that talks about your charitable contributions. As someone steeped in the literature on the psychological benefits of generosity, was your accountant worried that you were giving away too much of your money?

DUNN: He was not worried that I was giving away too much money. He had read about my research. You know, the downside of having your work prominently featured in the media is that, like, your accountant reads about it. And so when he saw...


DUNN: ...When he saw the charitable giving line of my tax return, he shot me this look of, like, I see through you to, like, the barest, ugliest part of your soul, you know?


DUNN: And you're telling everybody else how happy it would make them to give money away. But, like, this is not impressive how much money you're giving away. And it really, like, stood out to me, you know? I had this, like, moment of reckoning of like, oh, God, OK, I really need to be doing better.

VEDANTAM: Why were you not practicing what you were preaching, Liz? And what would happen if you - when you tried?

DUNN: Well, you know, I would give money to charities here and there. And one thing that I was really wrestling with is that I wasn't getting much of an emotional boost from these giving experiences that I was having, which was really puzzling to me because, you know, we saw that even in parts of the world where people were struggling to meet their own basic needs, giving money to charity was linked to greater happiness. So I was like, what is wrong with me, you know? Why am I not feeling this emotional boost that all of my research suggests should be there?

VEDANTAM: And you started to ask yourself, is there something wrong in the literature, or is there something wrong with you?

DUNN: Yeah. And so, you know, maybe there is something wrong with me. But I guess my first inclination was to explore whether we'd missed something in the research. So maybe it's not the case that giving to charity always makes people happier. Maybe it actually depends how you do it. So maybe I was just doing it wrong. And so I started with my colleagues and students exploring when people get the biggest emotional boost from giving to charity and when that emotional boost seems to sort of disappear.

VEDANTAM: You ran a study where you asked people to give money to UNICEF. Tell me what UNICEF does and what the experiment was about.

DUNN: Yeah, so UNICEF is a wonderful charity that really helps to support children's health initiatives around the world. But UNICEF is such a big, broad charity that it can be a little hard to really envision how your own small donation is going to really make a difference. So we asked people to give money to either UNICEF or another charity called Spread the Net.

VEDANTAM: And what does Spread the Net do? And what's the difference between their approach and the UNICEF approach?

DUNN: So Spread the Net has a lot in common with UNICEF. They're actually partners. They both care about promoting children's health. But Spread the Net has a very clear and specific mission. And so what they do is that for every $10 donated, they purchase one bed net to protect a child from malaria. So if you make even a small donation to this charity, you have a very clear idea of how you're making a difference. So we chose these charities because, you know, they're both important, worthwhile, working in kind of the same general space. But Spread the Net is giving donors a very clear window into how their dollars are making a difference, whereas with UNICEF, it can just be a bit harder to really understand how your donation is really going to change anyone's life.

VEDANTAM: So in other words, when you're asking people to give, it's really helpful that they know what their money is getting, that the more specific feedback that you can give them about the good that their money is doing, the greater the likelihood that their generosity is going to give them a warm glow, and the greater the likelihood that they actually give.

DUNN: Yeah, so people get the biggest emotional boost from giving to others when they can really envision or, better yet, directly see how their dollars are actually making a difference. So in the case of our Spread the Net and UNICEF experiment, what we discovered was that the more money people gave to Spread the Net, the happier they tended to feel afterward. But kind of remarkably, this emotional boost of giving was eliminated when people gave money to UNICEF. So this suggests that just giving money to a worthwhile charity doesn't automatically inherently trigger this emotional benefit. Instead, it really does seem to matter whether you can have a window into how you're actually having an impact on others' lives.

VEDANTAM: So besides the value of telling people exactly how their money is going to be used and to give them a sense that this is the impact it's going to have, you're also finding that the connection that people have with the object of their generosity seems to matter. And I'm wondering if you can tell me a personal story of your involvement with the Syrian refugee crisis and how your work with them has shaped how you've come to understand the psychology of generosity.

DUNN: Yeah, so at the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis, when stories about that, you know, terrible, terrible crisis were on the cover of the newspaper every day and we were seeing really just horrifying photos of even young children, you know, dying in this crisis, I was overcome with the desire to do something, to help. My first inclination was to donate money to big, reputable charities that were doing good work on this issue. And that's exactly what I did. But, you know, again, I just didn't feel much of an emotional boost at all from it. I just felt like I wasn't making a difference. Luckily, I live in Canada. And here in Canada, I discovered we have this incredible program called Group of Five. So the idea of the Group of Five is that any five Canadian citizens can actually privately sponsor a family of refugees. And, you know, you have to raise enough money to support the family for their first year in Canada. And then they actually get on a plane to your city. So they move to your city, and you're responsible for them for their first year in Canada.

This is a big undertaking. And one of the things that I think is so awesome about this program is that no matter how sort of wealthy and connected or smart you might be, you are not allowed to do this alone. And it happened that a bunch of my friends were interested in this as well. So I remember we all got together at someone's house one night and talked through it and thought, you know, is this something that we could do? And by the end of that night, we pretty much decided, like, OK, let's try to do this.

The first step was that we had to raise the money. So in our case, we had to raise about $40,000. That turned out to really be kind of the easy part because everyone was very concerned about the Syrian refugee crisis at that time, and people really opened up their wallets and gave. And then the hard part started. One of the big challenges, of course, is finding them a house. And so the family that we brought over had five kids, which is pretty much unheard of in Vancouver. Like, in Vancouver, housing is very expensive. Most people have zero, one or two kids. So that was a huge mission in and of itself. We found them a house. We filled it up with furniture. We stuffed their fridge with some nice, fresh food. And then before long, it was time for us to go to the airport and meet our family.

VEDANTAM: Liz and her friends gathered in an airport waiting room with welcome signs and balloons.

DUNN: And I still think about this moment where the doors opened from customs and our family of seven walked through those doors. And as soon as they saw us, the father, who's this, you know, very strong, emotionally resilient man, his eyes just filled with tears at seeing us. And, you know, his wife was also quite overcome with emotion. Her sister had come to Canada previously through the same program, so they were with us, too. And so we got to see these two sisters be reunited after being separated for 15 years. So we got to be there for that moment where these two women came back together. And that experience, it still gives me chills now when I think about it. And it's, you know, so far removed from the experience of going onto a website and donating money to charity and hoping that it makes a difference for somebody at some point, right? In this moment, you know, we could see everything that our group had contributed really reshaping the lives of this whole family.

VEDANTAM: I'm struck that you use the phrase our family when you describe the Syrian family that came in. I mean, at this point, this is not just a them that you're helping. This is an us that you're helping.

DUNN: Yeah. And so when we first took on this project, we would always just refer to the refugees, which I think is the way that most people talk about refugees, right? And now it sounds so weird to me to refer to them as the refugees - right? - because I think from the moment that they walked through the doors at the Vancouver airport, like, the children in this family just climbed into my heart. They'll just be there forever. And yeah, so it's a really amazing experience to know that you have been able to alter the course of life for a whole family.

After we met them at the airport, we got to take them to their new home. We got to play soccer with them in the front yard, show the kids their bedrooms. One of my friends - my friend Kylie (ph) had brought her daughter over a week or two earlier. And together they had decorated the girl's bedroom to try to make it just the way a preteen girl would want it. So basically, we'd put quite a bit of thought into trying to create not just this house for them, but create this home for them. And this feeling of being able to say to them you're home, you know, this is your place now, it's certainly the most profoundly rewarding experience of my life.

VEDANTAM: So when you had this group come together, the Canadian government requires that at least five families come together. But I understand that you actually built a larger group. Tell me about that group, and tell me about the dynamics in that group before this family came over. I'm imagining that actually this was a source of bonding for the group itself, that, in other words, you are establishing ties with one another separate from the ties that you were establishing with the Syrian family that you were bringing over.

DUNN: Absolutely. So in the end, there were more than 25 people involved in our group and about six or seven of us who were very deeply involved. And we were constantly having to sort of overcome challenges, problem-solve together. You know, one of the things that I loved about this experience is that I really got to see my friends' strengths. So most of the people that I was working with closely on this project I already cared about, I was already good friends with, but I hadn't necessarily seen everything they were capable of. So, you know, one of my friends, for example, is a nurse. And she can just take over any situation, get everything under control and, like, fix whatever is going wrong. And she just amazed me time and time again through this process. Like, I just got to see these strengths of hers that, you know, in our casual sort of day-to-day friendship I hadn't gotten to experience.

VEDANTAM: So it's so interesting because the difference here is not just between, you know, writing a check and helping a family. I mean, just in terms of financial help, I'm guessing you probably have donated far more financially than you would have ever written in a check to any organization, not just in terms of time, but just in terms of the resources you're giving this family and the help you're giving this family. Essentially, you've - you essentially had an open checkbook as you're working with this family. But it's also - you're not even thinking about the money, it sounds like, because at this point, you're not actually helping someone else. You're actually helping - you know, you were helping them as you would help your own family members. You're not thinking of it as an act of generosity. You're just saying, this is what it means to be Liz.

DUNN: Yeah, and I think this was something that really struck all of our group members is that once our family arrived, it just seemed obvious that we were just going to do whatever they needed. We were just going to - you know, whatever problem arose, we were going to help them figure it out. You know, again and again, I've been just stunned by the level of generosity that my group members have shown not only in terms of the financial support, but also, you know, my friend Mandy (ph) dropped all of the work that she was doing one day when the family needed to go to a clinic and, you know, needed her help in getting there and in navigating that system.

And, you know, the oldest kid in the family, who was 13 when he arrived, he just kept saying, I just want to be on a soccer team. And so one of my friends was able to find a team. Even though it was the middle of the season, she found a coach who was willing to add a last-minute player who had just arrived in Canada. And I just remember seeing him kind of running onto the soccer field and, you know, getting high-fives from these teammates who were opening up their team to him. People have just been ready to sort of drop what they're doing and help this family. And I think that, too, has really just increased the depth of my relationship with my close friends who've been involved in this because I've just seen the best side of their humanity.


VEDANTAM: Elizabeth Dunn is a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia. Along with Michael Norton, she is the author of "Happy Money: The Science Of Happier Spending." Liz, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

DUNN: Thank you so much for having me.


VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Parth Shah and edited by Tara Boyle and Rhaina Cohen. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Laura Kwerel, Thomas Lu and Cat Schuknecht‏. Engineering support from Joshua Newell (ph).


VEDANTAM: Our unsung hero this week is Isabel Lara, the executive director of media relations at NPR. Isabel has long been an enthusiastic supporter of HIDDEN BRAIN, and she always works hard to find ways to spread word about the show and connect us with new audiences. Plus, she's a really kind person, a colleague you always look forward to seeing at the office. These days, we mostly see Isabel on Zoom, but her upbeat demeanor shines through even on a video screen. We are so grateful for you, Isabel.


VEDANTAM: One last thing before we go. We are working on an episode about secrets. Do you have a private truth or a hidden burden that you keep tucked away from other people? Tell us about your secret and why you've kept it under lock and key. What have you lost and what have you gained from holding onto the secret? If you'd like to share your personal story, please find a quiet room and record a voice memo on your phone. Two to three minutes is plenty. Email it to us at hiddenbrain@npr.org using the subject line Secrets. Be sure to include your phone number and whether it's OK for us to use your name on the air. Again, record a voice memo in a quiet room and email it to us at hiddenbrain@npr.org.


VEDANTAM: For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can find us on Facebook and Twitter. Today's episode was the first in our You 2.0 series, which runs all this month. If you liked today's episode, please be sure to share it with a friend who might enjoy the series. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.


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