We all wanna be happy, right? But I have a little surprising, unhappy news about happiness — it can be selfish. Here’s what one study showed:
Our findings suggest that happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money… Happiness went with being a taker more than a giver, while meaningfulness was associated with being a giver more than a taker.
So happiness and goodness can be separate. There’s the “pleasure” type of happiness that comes from just eating ice cream but then there’s the warm kind that comes from helping friends.
What kind of happy do we want to be? And which one, in the end, is better?
One researcher found out and he did it in the craziest way possible: he started by studying what disgusts us. He looked at things that were universally morally offensive — and learned a few things you and I need to know to be truly happy.
Go down this rabbit hole with me, won’t you?
NYU professor Jonathan Haidt was studying moral disgust. He found all religions have a notion of purity and pollution. Now discussions about morality and science don’t usually get along too well but he thought there was something here worth digging into.
He found we all seem to be wired for moral disgust. Ask people to put on a jacket worn by a serial killer and many just won’t do it. Irrational? Yes. But they still balk. It felt icky.
Haidt found this with a number of morally disgusting things that wouldn’t actually hurt you or anyone else.
When cross-examined, participants often dropped these post-hoc reasons, yet did not change their minds. Instead they became “morally dumbfounded”— that is, they had strong moral intuitions that an action was wrong, and they were shocked to find that they could not find reasons to support their intuitions.
But this made Haidt think: if we all have negative moral emotions, shouldn’t the opposite exist too? Universal positive moral emotions? And after some research he found they did exist.
When we see others do morally good things like helping an old woman or donating to charity it can inspire a deeper and different type of happiness. He called it “elevation.”
And it was physically distinct from the ice cream/pleasure happiness. People felt different when they experienced elevation than mere pleasure. They got warm, tingly feelings.
In both studies we found that participants in the elevation conditions reported different patterns of physical feelings and motivations when compared to participants in the happiness and other control conditions. Elevated participants were more likely to report physical feelings in their chests, especially warm, pleasant, or “tingling” feelings, and they were more likely to report wanting to help others, to become better people themselves, and to affiliate with others.
Other studies were done around the world. It seemed to be universal. Elevation wasn’t just “feeling nice” — people said it moved their hearts.
In 1998 Yuki Amano, a Japanese American student working with me, conducted similar interviews with 15 people from varied backgrounds in Japan. She found that informants were emotionally responsive to the good deeds of others in ways that resembled the responses of Americans and Indians. Many of the interviews revolved around Japanese words for heart (kimochi, kokoro) and for times when the heart is moved (kandou).
But here’s where it gets really interesting: elevation didn’t just make people feel better — it motivated people to be better. It changed their behavior. In a study called “Witnessing excellence in action” the researchers reported:
Elevation led to higher reports (compared to joy or amusement) of motivations to do good things for other people, become a better person oneself, and emulate the virtuous role model more generally.
And they did go on to help others. A study titled, “Elevation predicts domain-specific volunteerism 3 months later”… well, it showed exactly that.
When your boss gives you a compliment, you feel good. That’s pleasure. But what about leaders that really inspire their employees?
Yup, that’s elevation again. A leader’s actions spoke louder than their words. Another study by Haidt showed:
We found that leaders’ interpersonal fairness and self-sacrifice are powerful elicitors of elevation, and that this emotion fully mediates leaders’ influence on followers’ organizational citizenship behavior and affective organizational commitment.
And yet another study showed one group of new mothers a clip of a musician thanking his mentor. The second group of moms watched some Jerry Seinfeld comedy. Both made them happier. But which one made the moms more likely to hug their kids?
The first one. It elevated them.
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
So how do we not just get happy but make sure we get elevated? (Or as the theme song from “The Jeffersons” goes, how do we start “Movin’ on up”?) Here are four ways from the research:
I figure we’ll start simple. Yup, watching movies can cause elevation. (Whoever thought Netflix would make you a better person?)
But not any movie will do — it’s gotta be one that powerfully shows someone helping others or being a moral role model.
Skeptical? You shouldn’t be. In fact, this is how some of those studies were performed. Show people a story about Mother Theresa and they feel good and want to help others. “America’s Funniest Home Videos” made people laugh, but didn’t elevate them.
In a second study we induced elevation in the lab by showing participants 10-minute video clips, one of which was about the life of Mother Teresa. (Control conditions included an emotionally neutral but interesting documentary and a comedy sequence from the television show “America’s Funniest Home Videos”).
And, yes, watching an inspiring film was enough to generate that special kind of happiness.
Elevated participants were more likely to report physical feelings in their chests, especially warm, pleasant, or “tingling” feelings, and they were more likely to report wanting to help others, to become better people themselves, and to affiliate with others.
(To learn what Harvard research says will make you happier and more successful, click here.)
Okay, watching movies is pretty easy. What’s a little more challenging but much more powerful?
Thinking nice thoughts is good but writing is different. James Pennebaker’s research has shown that when we write about difficult things in our lives it can help us cope better.
And when you scribble about doing good things or seeing moral things, boom — you can get to elevation.
In the study, “The health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences” they showed that writers not only felt happier, they also improved their health:
Writing about IPEs was associated with enhanced positive mood. Writing about IPEs was also associated with significantly fewer health center visits for illness, compared to controls.
(To learn the single most powerful, research-backed way to increase happiness, click here.)
I know, I know: writing can feel like homework. So what’s a fun way to get elevated?
Got a friend who is always kind and generous to others? Spend more time with them. Not only will you feel good, but just like mom told you, good people do rub off on you.
The perception of compassionate or courageous behavior by others causes a pleasurable physical feeling in the chest of movement, warmth, or opening, coupled with a desire to engage in virtuous action oneself.
And keep in mind the opposite is true as well. Just like mom said, don’t hang out with the bad kids.
Psychologists have observed that bad habits can spread through an office like a contagious disease. Employees tend to mirror the bad behaviors of their co-workers, with factors as diverse as low morale, poor working habits, and theft from the employer all rising based on the negative behavior of peers. – Greene 1999
When I spoke to Stanford GSB professor Bob Sutton, he told me his #1 piece of advice to students was this:
When you take a job take a long look at the people you’re going to be working with — because the odds are you’re going to become like them, they are not going to become like you.
(To learn the lazy way to an awesome life, click here.)
And what’s the single best way to not only be happy, but to become “elevated”?
UVA professor Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, talks about how doing good makes us become good:
It capitalizes on the tried-and-true psychological principle that our attitudes and beliefs often follow from our behaviors, rather than precede them. As Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” People who do volunteer work, for example, often change their narratives of who they are, coming to view themselves as caring, helpful people.
Now money can bring pleasure, right? But if you want to experience elevation, spend it on someone else. Research shows this actually produces more happiness than spending it on yourself.
By the end of the day, individuals who spent money on others were measurably happier than those who spent money on themselves — even though there were no differences between the groups at the beginning of the day. And it turns out that the amount of money people found in their envelopes — $5 or $20 — had no effect on their happiness at the end of the day. How people spent the money mattered much more than how much of it they got.
Harvard professor Michael Norton explains in his TED talk:
Here’s the most interesting part of doing good to feel elevation: people see you helping others and the elevation spreads. Haidt’s research shows it can cause an upward spiral for everyone around you:
…elevation is particularly interesting because of its power to spread, thereby potentially improving entire communities. If elevation increases the likelihood that a witness to good deeds will soon become a doer of good deeds, then elevation sets up the possibility for the same sort of “upward spiral” for a group that Fredrickson (2000) describes for the individual. If frequent bad deeds trigger social disgust, cynicism, and hostility toward one’s peers, then frequent good deeds may have a type of social undoing effect, raising the level of compassion, love, and harmony in an entire society.
(To learn how to help others without being a martyr, check out tips from Wharton’s Adam Grant here.)
Alright, you’re “movin’ on up.” Let’s round up what we’ve gleaned and learn what really makes elevation so special…
Here’s what we learned about elevation — the best way to be happier:
“Elevation” may be a new idea to social science but the concept has been around a long time. Over 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote the following:
When any… act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity and conceive an abhorrence of vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions; and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body, acquire strength by exercise.
As we all know, there are different kinds of unhappiness (anger, sadness, frustration, etc.) But now we’ve learned there are different kinds of happiness as well.
Jonathan Haidt recounts the words of someone talking about how even our tears can differ. Some come when we are sad, but much like the difference between happiness and elevation, tears can also mean joy.
It’s the kind of tear that flows in response to expressions of courage, or compassion, or kindness by others… That was a tear of celebration, a tear of receptiveness to what is good in the world, a tear that says it’s okay, relax, let down your guard, there are good people in the world, there is good in people, love is real, it’s in our nature. That kind of tear is also like being pricked, only now the love pours in.
Simple pleasures are nice but seeing others do good and doing good ourselves can produce a more powerful type of happiness that inspires, motivates, and makes the world a better place.
Happiness doesn’t need to be selfish. And neither do you.
Join over 250,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.