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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

Happiness is a warm glow

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Thursday, July 20, 2017 09:51 am

Go ahead, do something nice for somebody. Nothing big, just the smallest gesture of generosity will do. Open a door for them. Offer to carry a package. Just say hello and say good morning.

It will make you happy.

No, really. There's science:

It has long been acknowledged that acts of generosity raise levels of happiness and emotional well-being, giving charitable people a pleasant feeling known, in behavioral economics, as a "warm glow." But so far, no studies have investigated the mechanics behind the correlation between altruism and happiness.

Recently, Profs. Phillipe Tobler and Ernst Fehr, both from the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich (UZH) in Switzerland - in collaboration with other international researchers - conducted a study aiming to gain a better understanding of what goes on inside a person's brain when they decide whether or not to perform a generous act.

In the study, 48 people were divided into two groups, each given a small sum of money. One group, the experimental group, was instructed to make a public pledge to be generous with the money. The other, the control group, was told to spend the money on themselves. All participants were asked to report their level of happiness both at the beginning and at the end of the experiment. After making the public pledge, all the participants were asked to perform certain tasks while undergoing fMRI. They were prompted to make choices related to generous behavior by deciding whether or not they would offer a gift of money to someone. Each time, a cost to themselves was also specified alongside the total value of the gift. Both the value of the gift and the size of the cost varied.

It was found that participants in the experimental group were likelier to choose the gifts most beneficial to others that came at a larger cost to themselves - that is, they were more charitable and self-sacrificing than the participants in the control group.

It was also found that all participants who had performed, or had been willing to perform, an act of generosity - no matter how small - viewed themselves as happier at the end of the experiment.

A couple of things:

1. The study is highly suspect. The participants knew ahead of time that they were being assigned generous acts or selfish ones, so they were preprogrammed to set off that warm glow or to not set it off, as the case may be. A truly generous act, entered into voluntarily with no outside influence, always involves a sacrifice, however small, of the person's time, energy or possessions. These subjects were able to pretend generosity with no real sacrifice involved.

2. But I choose to believe it anyway.

We've all, I think, seen examples in our life of how small kindnesses, even casual gestures, can cascade. If you work in an office, think of the people there and see if you can't picture one or two of them who always smile and say hello the first time you see them each day. If that's the first person you see when you get to work, your day will be better than usual. On the other hand, if the first person you see is the office grump, you're more likely to be out of sorts for the rest of the day.

Recently there was a story about how a random act of kindness triggered a chain-reaction of good will in a small Indiana town.

On Father's Day in Scottsdale, an older woman noticed a man with his four children in the van behind her. So she told cashier Hunter Hostetler she was going to pay for the order and wanted her to tell him happy Father's Day. Upon hearing of the woman's good deed, the dad then paid for the next few cars behind him, and each car kept the process going.

Between 8:30 p.m. and midnight, every car paid for the ones behind it, a total of 167 good deeds. The only thing that stopped the domino effect of goodness was closing time.

That story tickled me so much I wrote an editorial about it, instead of using up my page space that day with the usual deplorings of intolerable situations. I like to think that somebody, somewhere, read that editorial and decided not to kick his dog that day. Life is made up of small victories.

I also think small acts of courtesy are just as important as small acts of generosity. How many of you have yielded to an oncoming car on a narrow street and been pleased to receive a small wave of acknowledgement from the driver you let through? How did it make you feel on those rare occasions when you didn't get the wave? 

I once tipped my hat (actually a baseball cap, which I always wear for Casual Fridays) to a female office acquaintance. She was not an especially old-fashioned person, in fact I would call her a feminist of sorts. But she smiled and thanked me, observing that it had been years since someone had tipped his hat to her, a gesture that was once acknowledged as a universal sign of respect and civility. I hadn't intended to, but I suspect I made her day.

And her response made mine. 

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