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DISCOVERY

The Art of Abundance

DISCOVERY

The Art of Abundance 

Looking to increase your sense of abundance? Research by Dr. Lara Aknin has established that giving to others can increase feelings of well-being

Professor Lara Aknin studies whether prosocial spending (i.e. spending money on others) has a positive affect on our happiness. In 2014, she and co-researchers Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School and Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia (UBC) published a systematic review of research conducted on the topic. Titled “Prosocial Spending and Happiness: Using Money to Benefit Others Pays Off,” it provided consistent support for their hypothesis: people who spend resources on others show an increase in happiness. The research was funded by SSHRC and CIHR.

Judging by the torrent of medic coverage in the wake of the paper’s publication–over 300 media outlets around the world reported on the study–the topic clearly hit a collective nerve.

When asked why the article may have attracted such widespread attention Aknin says, “I think people are curious about how they can use their money to effectively increase their happiness. Our paper provides an empirically supported answer: spend your money on others!”

The review looked at numerous studies, two of which were co-authoured by Aknin as a graduate student researcher at UBC. One study published in 2008 tracked students who were given either $5 or $20 and then assigned to either spend the funds on themselves or on someone else by 5pm. The participants were contacted at the end of the day to assess their moods and the researchers found that those who spent their money on others (such as buying a friend or stranger a coffee) reported greater happiness than those who were instructed to spend the money on themselves. Also, whether the amount was $5 or $20 had no bearing on the results).

The 2014 review also looked at a study released two years earlier. Children under the age of two were given snacks which they were later asked to share with an animal puppet. The children showed more signs of happiness when they shared (e.g. bigger smiles) as compared to when they were themselves gifted the snacks by the researchers. It’s believed that children this young have yet to be ingrained with social mores about generosity which suggests that prosocial behaviour and cooperation could be in our DNA.

To further explore the universality of the generosity-happiness relationship, Aknin and the team studied data from culturally and economic diverse populations spanning 136 countries. Again, they found an association between giving and emotional benefits in most countries. In fact, contrary to intuition, even participants in non-wealthy countries were happier giving resources away.

“I think this research has a very obvious real world application,” emphasizes Aknin. When people have extra disposable income to spend they should spend it on others instead of on themselves.”

The psychology professor remains dedicated to researching the connection between philanthropy and that all-to-rare “warm glow” feeling. Plus, she practices what she preaches: “I get great pleasure from treating friends and family to meals and gifts!” she says.

References

Dr. Lara Aknin is an assistant professor of psychology at SFU, a principle investigator in the university’s Helping and Happiness lab, and a fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. The Canadian Psychological Association awarded her a 2015 President’s New Researcher award which recognizes exceptional quality in the contribution of new researchers to psychological knowledge in Canada.

Q & A with Lara Aknin

If you could sum up the value of university research in one word what would it be?

Progress.

How is your research making an impact in our lives?

My research has shown that doing kind acts for others makes the helper feel good. So, I hope my research is providing important theoretical extensions to the long-standing research on altruism and guidance for everyday helping decisions.

How important is collaboration in advancing research?

Extremely important! I think some of my most exciting and important work has come from cross- and inter-disciplinary collaboration.

What motivates you as a researcher?

Curiosity. I'm deeply curious about why we as humans help others and if, when, why, and how that leads to happiness.

What does "open innovation" mean to you?

That research is motivated by new questions and results are open to the public for scrutiny and application.

SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?

My research is often conducted in the community and has important consequences for how many people choose to spend their limited time and financial resources. As such, this work is engaging the community–both in data collection and application.

What advice would you give to your younger self on the challenges you faced as a researcher?

Research is hard work but it's a great privilege to study what fascinates you alongside brilliant colleagues. Enjoy the ride!

Putting one’s research or innovation out into the world often requires a leap of courage–where do you derive your courage from?

My family and friends.

What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction university research over the next 50 years?

Cross-disciplinary collaboration.

SFU has much to celebrate on its 50th anniversary. Looking ahead to our 100th anniversary in 2065, what do you think SFU will be most notable for?

Continuing to advance important and meaningful research while engaging students and the community.