During their June 16 talk “Money, Generosity and Happiness“, Elizabeth Dunn, Bill Harbaugh and John Helliwell will present their latest research from economics, social psychology and neuroscience that relate to the Dalai Lama’s insights gleaned from a lifetime of spiritual practice. They will discuss altruism, charitable giving and the factors that promote well-being and happiness in individuals as well as in society.
Can money buy happiness? It’s a question asked with seemingly equal regularity by inquisitive philosophers and cash-strapped families.  And it’s a question that is most often asked within the context of the correlation between personal wealth and personal happiness.

However, there is a group of researchers who are interested in a third factor: generosity. Recently, researchers have been looking not only at the money people spend on themselves, but also the money they spend on others and how it corresponds with their happiness.

One of those researchers is Elizabeth Dunn. In fact, if you Google the question, “Can money buy you happiness?”, the top few hits are filled with references to her work. Dunn, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, has looked specifically at how people emotionally respond to money spent on themselves and money spent on others. Her findings have shown that people are much happier when they spend money on others, even if they don’t realize it.

“I don’t think people necessarily understand how to use money in ways that effectively promote happiness,” says Dunn. “Our culture sends us a lot of messages about indulging in material goods as a route to happiness, but what our research is suggesting is that spending money on others may actually be a more successful route to happiness than spending money on oneself.”

Bill Harbaugh is another researcher who has been examining generosity as a social construct. While Dunn looks at the emotional consequences of sharing wealth, Harbaugh, a professor of economics at the University of Oregon, looks closely at the reasons people share wealth.

His research shows that a “pure altruism” does exist – the idea that we give only to give – but it is far outweighed by a kind of giving that follows a model he calls the “warm glow”.

“It’s a subtle distinction,” says Harbaugh. “In the pure altruism model, you’re giving because you want to see the level of well-being of other people increase. In the warm glow model you’re giving because you want to help increase the well-being of others.”

Is this kind of giving selfish? Harbaugh isn’t sure. “Warm glow giving is, in some sense, inherently selfish, right?” he asks.  “You’re helping these people out because that makes you feel good. But, I think it leads to all kinds of philosophical questions about this kind of giving as a form of altruistic behaviour.”

Despite this prevalence of “selfish giving”, John Helliwell, Professor Emeritus of the University of British Columbia, suggests that we still underestimate the level of altruism present in society.

“Many people are – mistakenly – pessimistic about the altruism of both neighbours and strangers, and hence are less happy themselves and less likely to reach out themselves to help others,” says Helliwell. Why is hel so optimistic about the altruism of others? Helliwel recently undertook an experiment with dropped wallets to find out the altruistic responses of others. Although he’s not sharing the results of this experiment just yet, he says they will “illustrate the importance of realizing just how trustworthy our neighbours really are.”

To hear more about John Helliwell’s experiment and the work of Elizabeth Dunn and Bill Harbaugh, join them on June 16 for “Money, Generosity, and Happiness”.

Date: Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Time: 7:30 pm
Doors Open: 7:00 pm
Venue: SFU Harbour Centre
Address: J & R Segal Centre, Room 1400, 580 West Hastings, Vancouver

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