in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: October 3, 2023

Podcast #929: Can You Trust Happiness Studies?

How to be happier is a topic covered in countless books, blogs, and podcasts. Consume enough of this content and you repeatedly come across the same recommendations that have purportedly been proven to increase happiness: exercise, spend time in nature, meditate, socialize, and practice gratitude. 

But is there actual scientific evidence that these strategies work?

Today on the show, we’ll find out what professor of social psychology Elizabeth Dunn discovered when she did a study of happiness studies, and what the surprising findings have to do with the “replication crisis” that’s occurred in science. In the second half of our conversation, Elizabeth shares the takeaways of a few well-vetted happiness studies she’s done herself, including how to spend your money and use technology to increase happiness. And we discuss how to apply these findings, and the findings of all happiness studies, in a wise way that takes into account your unique personality and peculiarities. 

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. How to be happier is a topic covered in countless books, blogs and podcasts. Consume enough of this content, and you repeatedly come across the same recommendations that have purportedly been proven to increase happiness, exercise, spend time in nature, meditate, socialize, and practice gratitude. But is there actual scientific evidence that these strategies work? Today in the show, we’ll find out what professor of social psychology, Elizabeth Dunn discovered when she did a study of happiness studies, and what the surprising findings have to do with the replication crisis that’s occurred in science. In the second half of our conversation, Elizabeth shares the takeaways of a few well-vetted happiness studies she’s done herself, including how to spend your money and use technology to increase happiness, and we discuss how to apply these findings and the findings of all happiness studies in a wise way that takes into account your unique personality and peculiarities. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Alright, Elizabeth Dunn, welcome to the show.

Elizabeth Dunn: Thanks so much for having me.

Brett McKay: So you are a social psychologist and you research how money, time and technology shape our happiness. And recently, you and your colleagues did a study and you looked at the most frequently recommended strategies on how to be happier, that we see in blog posts, magazine, articles, podcasts, et cetera. You wanted to study, do these actually work? So what were some of the strategies that you all looked at?

Elizabeth Dunn: Yeah, so we found what were the most commonly recommended strategies out there in media stories, and those were practicing gratitude, being more sociable, practicing mindfulness and meditation, engaging in physical exercise and spending time in nature.

Brett McKay: Okay. And what were you looking at in this study?

Elizabeth Dunn: This project all started with a phone call that I got from a reporter that I knew who was at the time at the Atlantic, and he asked me, “How good is the evidence really for these strategies that you hear about all the time in the media as ways of promoting happiness?” And I actually hadn’t worked on most of these strategies, I’d never done work on mindfulness and meditation or nature or anything like that, and I had to admit I didn’t really know. And not knowing things like bothers me, so I wanted to find out, but trying to find out was actually a really hard thing to do because there’s massive literature on all of these different strategies. But fortunately, I have this amazing, amazing grad student named Dunigan Folk who reads a book a week, he’s just like the fastest, best reader I have ever met in my life, so he was totally up for reading every study that had ever been conducted on these topics and trying to assess them through a kind of updated lens of rigorous research practices. And so that’s exactly what we did, we’d comb through these literatures and just try to figure out how good is the evidence according to contemporary standards of what constitutes good, strong research. How good is the evidence for these strategies that we’re seeing being recommended in the media all the time.

Brett McKay: Okay, so you’re actually looking at the studies on these strategies to see if they’re actually good. So what did your study of these happiness studies find?

Elizabeth Dunn: Well, we found that there was surprisingly little strong evidence for some of these widely recommended strategies. In particular, there just wasn’t great evidence for the value of spending time in nature, engaging in meditation and mindfulness practices, or engaging in physical exercise as strategies for promoting happiness. We found a little bit better evidence when we looked at sociability. So there’s a little bit stronger evidence for the value of being more sociable, and we saw a pretty decent evidence for the value of practicing gratitude, but I have to say I was pretty shocked by the lack of evidence, lack of strong evidence for some of these really frequently recommended approaches to increasing happiness.

Brett McKay: Okay, so what you found in your study is that while these studies purported to show that X behavior increases happiness, when you actually looked at the evidence, the evidence didn’t actually prove that effect, and this doesn’t mean that a certain strategy won’t work for an individual person. There just isn’t evidence that on average, these things work to increase happiness.

Elizabeth Dunn: One thing that I think is really important to recognize is that we were intentionally looking at strategies that could promote happiness in the general population. So some of these strategies, things like exercise or meditation can actually be prescribed to people to deal with certain kinds of clinical conditions, so for example, you might be instructed by your therapist to engage in meditation if you have an anxiety disorder or perhaps exercise if you’re suffering from depression, and we were not examining whether these strategies are effective in treating specific clinical disorders, so if you’re somebody who’s been prescribed meditation by your therapist, by all means, carry on and continue. All we’re doing is trying to say, okay, for the typical person walking around on the average Tuesday, are these strategies likely to be effective in raising their happiness? So that’s just a really important caveat that I wanna emphasize.

Brett McKay: So what was wrong with those studies that lacked strong evidence, how come they lack that strong evidence?

Elizabeth Dunn: Well, you know, the field of behavioral science has changed dramatically over the past decade. So I have really lived through this scientific revolution where what constitutes strong evidence has changed substantially. So it used to be back in the day, like when I was in grad school, that behavioral scientists would run studies with very small samples of people, maybe 20 people in each condition, and that would be totally publishable and fine and everyone thought that was okay. Since then, we’ve discovered that actually when you run studies with such small samples, they turn out to be really hard to replicate, that is, when other people try and repeat your work and see the same effect, if you’ve used a really small sample, that effect may just fail to come out again. So what we’ve learned is sort of a basic thing, but it’s super important, is that in order to establish strong evidence for an effect, you really do need to test quite a lot of people and just to kinda give you a little bit of an idea of that, just to show that men weigh more than women, you would need 50 men and 50 women. So that’s a pretty basic fact that you would think it’s one of the easier things to detect.

Interesting psychological effects, like what makes people happy are probably gonna be a little harder to detect, and so you need more people, and so based on some fancy calculations that we did and some recommendations from Task Force and stuff, we said, okay, if you’re gonna run a typical study with a couple of different groups, you’re gonna need more like 86 people per group to detect these effects. And actually, that’s quite a low bar, I’d really think behavioral scientists should probably be running studies with more like 250 people per group. So that was a big factor is just like looking at the sample sizes and going, “Hey, did this study actually have the kind of sample size that would make us wanna put faith in the results of the study?” So that was one of our key factors.

Brett McKay: Is this part of this replication crisis that’s been happening in the social sciences?

Elizabeth Dunn: Yeah, so the replication crisis is the thing that I think sort of, we all became aware of in behavioral science around 2011 or so. There was kind of a confluence of events that all happened right around that time, in particular, a paper got published purporting to show that people can see into the future. And this paper was published in one of the top journals in the field, and it seemed to follow all of the same kinds of research practices that everybody was following, and so if you can follow standard research practices in a field and show that people can see the future, either we really misunderstood like the whole world and people really can see the future, or maybe there’s something wrong with the research practices that everybody’s using. So that was one of the big sort of events that helped to set off this whole replication crisis, and then people started trying to replicate other findings, other important findings in behavioral science and finding oh-oh, lots of effects that we thought were real and reliable don’t turn out to replicate. And so then the next step was, we’ll diagnose this problem, like figure out what’s going wrong.

And the beautiful sort of story of the replication crisis is that it’s really turned into what some people call a credibility revolution, that is, we went from having this crisis to figuring out what was wrong, fixing the way that we did research, and now I think the field is just so much stronger and we have new standards for what’s considered rigorous research. And so one piece of that is making sure that we have enough people in our studies to really provide reliable and replicable results, that is, to find effects that then other labs can go and test and find the same thing.

Brett McKay: Well, you don’t just see this in social science, you can also see this in health science as well, where people… You’ll see a study being touted in the popular press about, X food boost longevity or whatever, and then you actually look at the study and they just looked at maybe 15 people. Well, maybe it could just be like random that a certain amount of people saw improvements in longevity, because they ate X food, so it doesn’t just apply to social science, you see this across science as well.

Elizabeth Dunn: Absolutely, and that’s so important to emphasize, and this has been… The replication crisis has been a very big issue, for example, in cancer research, it’s even touched fields like physics, so this is not something that is at all limited to behavioral science. If anything, I think what’s special maybe about social psychology is that social psychologists have played a really lead role in trying to tackle the crisis to be like, “Okay, we’ve got a problem, we’re gonna fix it.” And to me, I just really love science. And one of the things that I love about science is that it is self-correcting, right? So the idea of science is not that we get everything right or that we always come to the correct answer the first time we try, but rather that we don’t just accept things on faith, and when we realize we have a problem, we try to fix it and that we’re all in the business of trying to correct ourselves and correct each other, and I think that’s actually happened in my field and it’s been… As difficult as it was to live through the replication crisis, living through the sort of second chapter of this credibility revolution has been really inspiring.

Brett McKay: Besides the happiness studies, are there any other popular pieces of psychological advice that haven’t held up under closer scrutiny?

Elizabeth Dunn: There are a lot of effects that have been called into question as a result of the replication crisis, so just a couple of examples, one is the idea of stereotype threat, so this is the idea that just being aware of a stereotype about your group can lower your performance. So, for example, if you kinda reminded me that I’m a woman and that there’s a stereotype that women aren’t good at math, that that could actually undermine my performance on a subsequent math test, it’s a really compelling and interesting idea, but it’s certainly been thrown into doubt by the replication crisis.

Brett McKay: Another one that I’ve heard about is the idea of priming people, if you give someone a hot beverage, then they’re gonna feel more warm to other people, and I think recent research has said, “Probably not. Not as strong as we think it is.”

Elizabeth Dunn: That’s right, and I think some of the effects that we’re sort of the… You know, cool list like, “Oh wow, that’s so amazing that that’s true. It’s unbelievable.” It’s like… Yeah, it is unbelievable. It’s not true.

Brett McKay: And something else I think contributed to the replication crisis, I kinda… Sometimes I get nostalgic for that period from 2005 to 2017-ish, where all these books were coming out from the social sciences about, “Well, if you do this thing, it can improve your life.” I think what also was going on, there was sort of an incentive amongst professors, it wasn’t like these professors weren’t… They weren’t being evil or anything, but there was an incentive there, they came up with their cool study that showed you this counter-intuitive idea, if you do X, it’ll give you this X benefit. Well, you get a TED Talk. And then that could give you a book deal that will… You could sell millions of copies and then you can go on the speaking circuit, and so it may have contributed to people doing not so great studies.

Elizabeth Dunn: I think that’s right, and I think it’s also really important, the point that you made about it not necessarily being intentional. Now, there are people who do fake data, like they literally make stuff up. Right? And that is fraud. It is terrible. It’s, I think relatively rare, maybe not as rare as people would like to think, but it’s certainly not that common. In contrast, the much more common problem is what some folks call p-hacking, where you kind of massage your data a little bit, so you play with different ways of doing the analysis, and you could think of it like a scientist shoots a bunch of darts at the wall and then draws the bull’s eye around wherever the dart happened to land and yells, “Eureka, I found what I was looking for.” Right?

So the idea is you can kind of analyze the data a whole bunch of different ways, and then something’s probably gonna come out if you conduct hundreds of different analyses on the same data set, you’re probably gonna get something and then you just publish that and don’t transparently report all the other ways that you looked at the data. And again, that sounds bad, but honestly, it used to be considered sort of best practice in the field. So I remember when I was a graduate student, a faculty member who I’ve never published anything with, so I’m not outing anybody here, but a faculty member who I’d worked with on a project, I came into his office and I said, “The study didn’t work that we did with you.” And he said, “Oh, no one’s ever come into my office and said that the study worked, go back and analyze your data better.” Right?

So I was basically being told as this new grad student, go do a better job analyzing your data, try analyzing in different ways, you will find the effect if you look hard enough. And so this was really, I think, a fundamental misunderstanding. We’re thinking of ourselves as kind of being like archeologist chipping away at the dust and the dirt and sediment to get to the true fossil that was really lying there, and in fact, we’re more like sculptors creating an image out of stone that never existed until we came along and made it ourselves. So again, I think that’s sort of a really important distinction to recognize, and the interesting thing with p-hacking is that unless you have a way of stopping it, it’s gonna happen because it’s just human nature to try to thoroughly explore what’s going on and then to have this motivation to see the way the analysis came out as being, “Oh yeah, it makes sense that I would analyze the data that way, I mean of course, we should control for gender because there turned out to be gender differences on this variable so it totally makes sense that I should control for gender, but I’ve just seen that, oh yeah, the analysis comes out significant when I control for gender, it doesn’t if I leave gender out, so gosh, I sure am motivated to get gender in there.”

And so the wonderful new-ish thing that’s come into our field is what’s called pre-registration, where we say publicly, here’s the study I’m gonna do, here’s how I’m gonna conduct the analyses, and then I have to stick to that or I have to be transparent and saying, “Okay, actually the analyses that I planed to do did not work, but here are some exploratory analyses that I’m doing,” and then everybody can see and kinda evaluate what I really did and what I really found. And so in our review, what we wanted to do is to look for studies that were not only had a decent sample size, but we also looked for studies that were pre-registered where people were committing to these analysis plans and therefore their hands were tied, they could not really engage in p-hacking, or at least we could tell if they were because they had transparently committed to their analysis plans ahead of time.

Brett McKay: Do you have any recommendations on how a layperson should approach research backed psychological advice that they encounter in the popular press?

Elizabeth Dunn: I think people should be very skeptical if all they’ve seen is, study shows X and X seems really surprising and counter-intuitive, you know, dig deeper and so a good… A first question that I would encourage people to ask is, were participants in this study randomly assigned to condition? So this is very important because many studies out there are simply correlational. So for example, I might find that people who eat more organic fruit and vegetables are happier than people who don’t buy organic, and the discovery might be like, eating organic makes you happier. But importantly, that study was just correlational, I just showed that there was an association between buying organic vegetables and happiness, and of course, the fact that you bought organic is probably correlated with lots of other things, including for example, income, wealthier people are probably gonna be more able to buy expensive organic produce, for example, and it might be really the income is related to happiness, we know that’s true, and that organic vegetables is just like coming along for the ride, and that if you started eating more organic vegetables, that wouldn’t make you happier.

The truth is, you would need to have a lot more money in order to get happier, and so that’s sort of the first bar that I would really encourage people to look at, it’s just like, were people randomly assigned a condition or was this a correlation and right there, that’s probably the biggest way of scraping aside lots of, you know, misleading headlines is just to look for that. And then the next more advanced step would be to think about, you know, look at the sample size, right? So when you do see, oh, it was only 15 people or 25 people in this study, be a little skeptical. Again, it varies in terms of exactly what researchers are studying, but if I were to give people just a really simple rule of thumb, I wanna see like hundreds of people in a study before I put too much faith in it.

Brett McKay: Okay. And this is actually useful advice for looking at any scientific study where you’re getting some sort of lifestyle advice, health advice, etcetera.

Elizabeth Dunn: Yeah, and again, it would vary a bit and there’s certain things where we just can’t run experiments. So for example, it’s pretty tough to, you know, look at for example whether people who buy organic vegetables live longer because we’d have to wait like 30 years to find out what happens and by that time, you know, it’s too late, right? So there’s some things where it’s just like the nature of the question is limited to these correlational methods, but when there’s something we can ask with an experiment, like you know, after two months of buying organic, are you happier? We can absolutely study that with an experiment. And so if it’s just a correlational study that is getting reported, we wanna be really careful in not putting too much weight on that, especially if we’re gonna make, you know, costly lifestyle choices on the basis of that finding.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. Well, besides doing… You know, researching happiness studies and whether these happiness strategies are effective, you’ve done your own research on what makes us happy. Particularly looking at how we spend our time, our money, how we interact with technology, how these can contribute or take away from our happiness. So for example, your research has found that buying time is a great way money can bring us happiness. So how can buying time bring us happiness and then what keeps people from doing that?

Elizabeth Dunn: Yeah, so one of the interesting discoveries just sort of from correlational research is that wealthier people don’t always use their time in happier ways. And even in some studies of really affluent folks, research suggests that people may choose not to buy time. So when we say buy time, what we mean is using money to buy your way out of doing the stuff that you hate. So for example, for me, I am like terrible at cleaning. It takes me like an atrocious amount of time just to clean our teeny tiny kitchen for example. And even just thinking about it kind of fills me with dread. And so for me, you know, even this year where I’m taking a sabbatical and so I’m actually making a lot less money than I normally do, I’m going to keep our cleaners because they give me back time in this really valuable way.

And so along with my former student, Ashley Whillans, who’s now a professor at Harvard Business School, we conducted a pre-registered experiment in which we basically gave people money and half the time we told them to spend it in a way that would buy them time and half the time we told them to spend it on a material thing. And what we found is that people felt better on the weekend where we told them to buy themselves some time rather than buying a material thing. So this suggests that using your money to buy your way out of the like terrible ways of spending time to buy yourself a little bit more time can be a pretty good strategy for promoting happiness.

Brett McKay: But you also have done research that people feel guilty about buying time. Why is that?

Elizabeth Dunn: Yeah, I mean I think this is really interesting. You know, one of the things we see kind of over and over again is that when you tell people, “Hey, you know what? I’m gonna give you some money and I want you to spend it in a way that will make you happier.” Rarely actually do they say that they’re gonna use it in a way that will buy them time. And so we wanted to find out why that might be. And I think there’s a few barriers, but one barrier is just this feeling of guilt that comes with buying time. And the thing about buying time is that usually what we’re buying our way out of are tasks that we fully well could do ourselves, right? So like I hate it, I’m not great at it, but I am capable of cleaning my own house.

And so I might feel a little bit of guilt about paying somebody else to do that for me. In contrast, you know, I’m not gonna feel guilty about like paying a dentist to fill a cavity for me ’cause that’s not something I could or should do on my own, right? But because these are tasks that almost by definition people are capable of doing themselves, there is this potential for a feeling of guilt about paying someone else to do it. And we see some evidence that that feeling of guilt can kind of serve as a barrier that prevents people, even if they could afford it from using their money to buy their way out of the tasks that they hate doing.

Brett McKay: So buying time could be hiring a cleaner, be hiring a lawn service, for example. And I have a lawn service and I remember initially I felt kind of guilty about it, but then I just realized, oh my gosh, like it takes me an hour and a half to mow my yard on my own, the edging and the, you know, doing the leaf blower to get all the grass clippings out of the way, make everything look sharp, and then this lawn crew comes in and they knock it out in 15 minutes.

Elizabeth Dunn: [laughter] Right.

Brett McKay: And it’s like why am I spending an hour and a half to two hours doing this? And I think part of it’s like, well you know, I did this when I was a kid, I should keep doing it now, but you know, I could spend my time doing something else besides spending an hour and a half mowing the yard.

Elizabeth Dunn: That’s right. And I think, you know, sometimes when I talk about this research, somebody will raise their hand and say, “But I like mowing my lawn. Like, yes, my time is worth $300 an hour and it would be like smarter to pay someone else to do this for me but like it gives me a sense of satisfaction.” And so for the tasks that you enjoy doing, I mean I think you should absolutely do them. My stepfather like loves vacuuming for some reason that I find completely inexplicable but he should by all means carry on, right? If it’s satisfying, great. But you know, it’s about paying attention to those tasks that, you know, not only do you dislike doing them, but maybe you procrastinate or you just feel like, ugh, when you think about the fact that like, this is gonna be what your Saturday afternoon entails.

And so those are the tasks where it’s really great to go in and surgically say, wait a second, could I use some money to remove these tasks from my life? Could I make my Saturday way better by spending that afternoon, you know, playing with my kids or catching up with old friends or getting outside for a bit to play tennis with someone or you know, something like that as opposed to, you know, battling the lawn. And so one strategy I would encourage people to do is if you are gonna buy time, think about like what are you gonna then use that time for, you know, make that time maybe be special or think about it as a kind of windfall of time that then you can use in a really positive way to potentially max out those benefits.

Brett McKay: So yeah, if you’re gonna use that free time to just, you know, scroll your phone, you’d probably be better off just doing the thing. So make sure you actually have better things to do if you’re gonna buy your time. And as you said, you know, just buy time with the task you personally don’t like. And that’s gonna vary from person to person. It’s like I outsource our lawn care but we clean our own house and we do it as a family because you know, I don’t mind doing it and I also think it’s important for our kids to have some chores around the house. So there isn’t a one size fits all with this idea.

Elizabeth Dunn: That’s right. And I do think that’s sort of one problem with some happiness recommendations is when they are too broad. So if I said, you know, just buy your way out of everything, right? That wouldn’t be good advice. It’s instead like pay careful attention to the tasks that for you personally you find really unpleasant and think about what better thing you could do with that time if you bought your way out of it. And that’s going to be a sort of much more, I think effective and potentially more sort of personalized approach to considering how to go from, you know, the research out there to actually applying this in your own life.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s another bit of advice on taking advice. You have to take into account your personal personality, your situation in order to figure out is this advice actually gonna help me? And also remember a lot of these studies they’re based on averages, right? So it might work for the average person, which is sort of this statistical thing that the researchers put together, but you might be an outlier. You got to take into account your own personal peculiarities about yourself.

Elizabeth Dunn: That’s right. And I think this is such an important point, you know, going back to our study of studies, looking at these different strategies for promoting happiness. You know, I as a very avid sort of fitness nut was really surprised by the lack of strong evidence supporting the happiness benefits of exercise. But I actually know that for me, going running substantially improves my mood. And so I kind of thought before, this must be true for everybody, right? Like, this must be a really reliable effect that would be super easy to detect. And so the fact that it isn’t, you know, points to this variability and I was chatting with my mother-in-law about our work and she was like, “Thank you for publishing this paper because exercise never puts me in a better mood. Like if anything, it puts me in a worse mood.”

And I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Like it just points to, you know, how much variability there is. And so to some extent, one thing that I think is just a really helpful recommendation is to experiment on yourself, right? Like try these different things. And so for example, if you think well, you know, spending more time in nature that might be worth trying for me. Go spend more time in nature and just pay attention to how you feel afterward and if it’s something that is making you happier, that’s really good to know. And then even like noticing what particular aspects, is it being alone in nature that you find really helpful? Is it being with a few other people in nature? Is it sort of that 10 minute nature walk or is it like lying down in the forest and gazing up at the trees for an hour? You know, we can figure these things out for ourselves, but often people don’t because we don’t necessarily pay close attention to the factors that are shaping our moods.

Brett McKay: Okay. So spending money to buy time will likely, could make you happy. Some people they actually enjoy doing those things, mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, you got to figure out what works for you. You’ve also done research about how spending our money on others can make us happy. What’s going on there?

Elizabeth Dunn: Yeah, so this is one of the findings that’s kind of most near and dear to my heart. Something that we started working on sort of way back in the day around 2008. And in one of our first studies on this topic, we actually went out on our campus at the University of British Columbia and literally handed people money. So we gave them either a $5 or $20 bill, which we asked them to spend by the end of the day. And then we called them back… Oh, sorry. And I should say we also told half of the people that they had to spend this money in a way that benefited others, we told half the people they had to spend this money in a way that benefited themselves. And then we called them back at the end of the day and basically asked them how happy they had felt that day.

And what we discovered was that people felt happier on a day where they had used this money to benefit others compared to other folks who had been told to use the money to benefit themselves. Now importantly, that was a very small study, not pre-registered, but since then we’ve gone back and using various kinds of methodologies, we have been able to successfully replicate this kind of core effect with much larger samples using pre-registration. And what we see is that on average people do seem to get more happiness from using money in ways that benefit others rather than themselves.

Brett McKay: Are there any conditions that need to be in place in order to get that happiness from spending money on others?

Elizabeth Dunn: Yeah, so it’s certainly not the case that everybody everywhere all the time feels happier from spending their money on others. And so we have been able to identify at least some of the conditions that seem to be important in turning good deeds into these good feelings. And I would say the most important one is that it’s really important to be able to see the impact that your generosity is having on somebody else. So for example, you know, often we might go onto some charitable website and you know, make a donation and we hope that we’re doing some good, but it’s really hard to have any insight into how we’re actually making a difference. At the other end of the spectrum, you can think of for example, you know, buying a gift for a friend and giving it to them and their face lights up and they’re so happy and it’s exactly what they wanted and you feel great, right?

And so that sort of ability to either directly see or at least vividly imagine how your generosity has made a difference is really important. And I think this is a particularly key lesson for folks who are working on charitable campaigns to recognize that, you know, it’s this really wonderful beautiful thing about humans as a species that we can derive joy from giving to others but again, it’s not automatic. We need to be able to get that window into how we’re making a difference. And the more sort of real and precise and vivid and immediate that it can be, the better. And so this can look like, you know, something as simple as just telling people, you know, for example, the charity Spread the Net tells people for every $10 you donate, we will buy one bed net to protect a child from malaria. And so that kind of a clear promise enables people to really have a sense of how they’re making a difference.

You know, other charities have done this in really interesting ways by for example, enabling people to see exactly the individual that they’re giving to. For example, you can give to like a specific teacher in a specific classroom to help them, you know, buy microscopes for underprivileged kids and enable them to do this whole really cool, you know, project about pond life or something, you know? And having those kinds of details really makes a difference in terms of our ability to vividly understand how we’re making a difference. So I think that’s probably, you know, the number one key I think takeaway that I think is worth applying from this work. Another is just that we’re more likely to feel good about giving when we feel a real sense of connection with the people or the cause that we’re helping. So, you know, I know in the wake of the disastrous fires in Maui, one of my friends is quite close and connected to people in Hawaii. And so it’s been really important to her to give to folks there because she does feel a real sense of connection with that place and with those people. And so it’s much more emotionally resonant even though she recognizes it would probably be equally important to give to other areas of the world or other folks that have experienced disasters. It’s particularly resonant for her to give to those people because she feels a sense of connection with them.

Brett McKay: So you’ve also done research on the role technology can play in our happiness. So first, how can technology sap our happiness? What does your research say?

Elizabeth Dunn: Yeah, so what we see is that the problem with technology and we focus specifically on smartphones, we started doing this work when we noticed as people who study social interactions and happiness, we noticed that suddenly there was like this new player in the room, you know, around 2010 or a little before where everybody was having these social interactions, but also with each other in person, but also engaging with their phones. And so we realized that for one thing, these smartphones might create a form of distraction that would undermine people’s ability to really fully connect with close others around them. And for example, we did an experiment where we basically took over the table of a local cafe for about six months and we would invite people in to have dinner on our tab with their friends or family and we would subtly slip in an instruction either for them to have their phones out and available during the meal or to just go ahead and put them away during the course of the meal.

And what we discovered, even though this instruction was really subtle and people didn’t know that this was what the study was about, what we discovered was that people felt more distracted during the meal when they had their phones out and available compared to when they were put away. And that this did have an impact on how much they enjoyed the whole experience. So you know, a simple takeaway tip is like for the love of God, just put away your phones if you’re having dinner with friends and family, it will make a little bit of a difference and it’s such an easy thing to do. So that’s one sort of way in which technology and smartphones specifically can kind of undermine our social interactions is just by creating a sense of distraction. We also find that smartphones can lead people to just not even engage with those around them, particularly with, you know, the strangers surrounding them, they’ll turn to their phones for information and entertainment rather than engaging with people around them.

So for example, in a new study that we just published, we actually brought people, groups of students into our lab and we had a big game of giant Jenga set up so they could like play giant Jenga if they wanted to, but they didn’t have to, they could also just sit around. And we either had everybody put all of their stuff into a locked cabinet beforehand or we had people put all their stuff in the locked cabinet but they could hold onto their phones. And what we discovered is that when people had their phones, they were less likely to engage with each other to, for example, you know, start playing this game and really like chatting with the other folks in the room and they ended up enjoying this whole experience a little bit less as a result of, you know, those interactions being kind of less likely to occur or occurring to less of an extent because people could just be like, yo, I’m sitting here in a room with some random people, you know, I’m just gonna like hop onto social media or I’m gonna do whatever on my… Scroll through my phone rather than chatting with these, you know, strangers who are actually potential friends.

You know, they’re at the same university during this, you know, little in this kind of lab room that we’d set up to be like a romper room, you know, something, place where you could engage with people or not, phones seemed to make a difference. So my kind of takeaway there is that if you are organizing, you know, like a back to school event, perhaps organizing some kind of like cocktail party mixer, if you can find a subtle way to get people to not have their phones, they will be more likely to engage with strangers and enjoy the event.

Brett McKay: Okay. Anything in your research that’s found that technology or smartphones can help boost positive social engagements?

Elizabeth Dunn: Well, the upside of technology is that it can provide us with information and entertainment. And so what we see, for example, in one study we sent people out on campus to try to find a building that they were not familiar with and most of them were able to do this, most of them got to the building, but people who had their smartphones got there a little faster and they were in a better mood because this task was just easier. The cost though was that they didn’t ask anybody for help, they just used their phones and so they did feel a little bit less socially connected. So the cost in terms of smartphone use seems to be missing out on these in-person social interactions. Now, of course you might think, well, the good thing with phones is they make it really easy to stay connected to people we care about.

Like I have a group of friends that we’re always kind of texting each other and that does make me feel a nice sense of connection. Interestingly though in some research that other folks have conducted such as Susan Holtzman, she finds that text-based interactions don’t seem to be as satisfying as in-person interactions. So I think the takeaway here is like if you’re sitting by yourself in a waiting room, it would be better to have your phone and be able to like entertain yourself, maybe text some friends but if you’re sitting around a waiting room with people that are like potential future colleagues or fellow students at a university or something, you’re probably better off chatting with those people than engaging with your phone.

Brett McKay: Well, Elizabeth, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Elizabeth Dunn: If they’re interested in money and happiness and how they can get more happiness out of their money, whether they have a little or a lot of it, my book, Happy Money co-authored with Michael Norton is a great place to look. They can also follow me on X @DunnHappyLab and all of my work is also as much as possible, we make it freely available on my website. So just google my name, Elizabeth Dunn and it’ll show University of British Columbia and that should pop right up for you.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Elizabeth Dunn, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Elizabeth Dunn: Oh, thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Elizabeth Dunn. She’s the author of the book, Happy Money. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about her work at her website Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AoM podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.


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