Teaching: The Unexpected Pleasure of Doing Good

Woman helping another woman using a walker as she gets out of a car.

Aimed at integrating cutting-edge psychological science into the classroom, Teaching Current Directions in Psychological Science offers advice and how-to guidance about teaching a particular area of research or topic in psychological science that has been the focus of an article in the APS journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Also see Teaching: On the Benefits of Critical Ignoring.

Aknin, L. B., Dunn, E. W., & Whillans, A. V. (2022). The Emotional Rewards of Prosocial Spending Are Robust and Replicable in Large Samples. Current Directions in Psychological Science31(6), 536–545.

Epley, N., Kumar, A., Dungan, J., & Echelbarger, M. (2023). A Prosociality Paradox: How Miscalibrated Social Cognition Creates a Misplaced Barrier to Prosocial Action. Current Directions in Psychological Science0(0).

“Every human mind feels pleasure in doing good to another.” 

Thomas Jefferson (1816) 

Doing good feels surprisingly good. That’s the bottom line of two new Current Directions in Psychological Science research summaries. In one, Lara Aknin, Elizabeth Dunn, and Ashley Whillans (2022) report “robust and replicable” evidence that prosocial spending—spending money on others—boosts happiness:   

  • People who are given cash become happier after spending it on others rather than themselves. 
  • People who receive a windfall allowing them to purchase steeply discounted goodies, such as chocolates, feel happier if the goodies go to a child in need rather than themselves.  
  • When surveyed, people worldwide report feeling happier after spending money on others rather than themselves (Aknin et al., 2013).  

So, from child gift-givers (Aknin et al., 2015) to kidney donors (Brethel-Haurwitz & Marsh, 2014) to people spending on their pet rather than themselves (White et al., 2022), those who spend on others (at least for those who can afford it) feel an emotional lift. When we do good, we feel good. 

In a second report, Nicholas Epley, Amit Kumar, James Dungan, and Margaret Echelbarger (in press), found that small prosocial actions can increase the well-being of both giver and receiver.  

In one experiment, the Epley team had people strike up a friendly conversation with a stranger. When commuters were offered a $5 gift card and assigned to (a) do as they would normally do on their train or bus, (b) sit in solitude, or (c) strike up a conversation with a stranger, the conversationalists’ experience was surprisingly positive. They initially winced at the conversational challenge, anticipating an awkward experience. Yet, after conversing with a stranger, even introverts departed their commute in a happier mood. 

See all articles from this issue of the Observer.

Other studies indicate a happiness boost from friendly bantering with a barista (Sandstrom & Dunn, 2013), giving a compliment to a stranger (Boothby & Bohns, 2021), or greeting a bus driver (Gunaydin, et al., 2021). Such small acts of kindness leave both giver and recipient feeling better. 

Likewise, in 18 replications, Epley et al.’s students wrote letters sharing previously unexpressed gratitude to someone. The result? Most underestimated their recipients’ surprise and delight. In further experiments, those performing random acts of kindness routinely underestimated their recipients’ positive responses (Kumar & Epley, 2022).  

If only we understood how positively people will respond to our kindness, we would more willingly express appreciation, offer a compliment, express support, or, as in the activity below, initiate deeper and more meaningful face-to-face conversations.  

Thomas Jefferson rightly presumed that people “take pleasure in doing good to another.” Yet, conclude Epley, Kumar, Dungan, and Echelbarger, “they may avoid this pleasure not because they do not want to be good to others, but because they underestimate just how positively others will react.” 

The take-home lesson: We and our students can do it: Greet the custodian with a smile. Take an interest in the ride-share driver. Ask the checkout clerk how their day is going. When feeling appreciation for a family member or friend, tell them. And see if we can replicate the happy science of micro friendships.

Student Activities: The Unexpected Pleasure of Doing Good

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Aknin, L. B., Barrington-Leigh, C., Dunn, E. W., Helliwell, J. F., Burns, J., Biswas-Diener, R., Kemeza, I., Nyende, P., Ashton-James, C. E., & Norton, M. I. (2013). Prosocial spending and well-being: Cross-cultural evidence for a psychological universal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104, 635–652. 

Aknin, L. B., Broesch, T., Kiley Hamlin, J., & Van de Vondervoort, J. W. (2015). Prosocial behavior leads to happiness in a small-scale rural society. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144, 788–795. 

Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363–377. 

Brethel-Haurwitz, K. M., & Marsh, A. A. (2014, March). Geographical differences in subjective well-being predict extraordinary altruism. Psychological Science, 25, 762–771. 

Boothby, E. J., & Bohns, V. K. (2021). Why a simple act of kindness is not as simple as it seems: Underestimating the positive impact of our compliments on others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 47(5), 826–840. 

Gunaydin, G., Oztekin, H., Karabulut, D. H., & Salman-Engin, S. (2021). Minimal social interactions with strangers predict greater subjective well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-being, 22(4), 1839–1853. 

Jefferson, T. (1816, October 14). The Adams papers: To John Adams from Thomas Jefferson. 

Kardas, M., Kumar, A., & Epley, N. (2022). Overly shallow? Miscalibrated expectations create a barrier to deeper conversation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 122(3), 367–398. 

Kumar, A., & Epley, N. (2018). Undervaluing gratitude: Expressers misunderstand the consequences of showing appreciation. Psychological Science, 29(9), 1423–1435. 

Kumar, A., & Epley, N. (2022). A little good goes an unexpectedly long way: Underestimating the positive impact of kindness on recipients. Journal of Experimental Psychology, in press.  

Sandstrom, G. M., & Dunn, E. W. (2014). Is efficiency overrated?: Minimal social interactions lead to belonging and positive affect. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(4), 437–442. 

White, M. W., Khan, N., Deren, J. S., Sim, J. J., & Majka, E. A. (2022). Give a dog a bone: Spending money on pets promotes happiness. Journal of Positive Psychology, 17, 589–595. 

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