Can you put a price on happiness?
In researching the replication crisis in psychology, I discovered that the self-help industry grossed $11 billion last year in the United States alone. With so much money spent, Americans must be the happiest, most self-actualized people on the planet, right?
Rather, 2018 was a record-breaking year for the United States in “deaths by despair” – Americans dying by suicide, drug overdose and alcohol-related fatalities. It reached heights not seen for at least 50 years.
This is not a global problem; it is a uniquely American crisis. Because while the rest of the developed world has seen mortality rates in these categories stabilize or fall, they continue to rise unabated in the U.S. Furthermore, the rates are climbing so steadily that, for the third year in a row, life expectancy in the U.S. will decline. There is only one other point in American history when this has occurred – from 1916 to 1918 when the country was in the combined grips of World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic.
As a result of this crisis, countless think-pieces, studies and books have been written on the subject, but no one is any closer to answering why its happening or how to stop it. There are some clues, however. For example, 72% of Americans report feeling a sense of loneliness. Meanwhile, only 30% said yes when asked, “Do you trust most people?” Finally, not only do most American not spend any time with their neighbors, they don’t even know their names.
In short, we are deeply disconnected from one another.
Yet, relatedness – the feeling that we matter to others and that others matter to us – is a universal need; one no less urgent than the need for food, water and oxygen. Thus, given how many of us are starved for it, the record numbers of those killing themselves a little bit at a time or all at once becomes a bit less shocking.
Now, back to that $11 billion for a moment. What exactly are people paying for? Some of the most popular self-help books of the past decade have been things like The Secret (the fine print: the secret is confirmation bias), The Four Hour Work Week (the fine print: You know what REALLY helps you get rich? Coming from a wealthy family and graduating from Princeton) and a whole pantheon of nonsense from hucksters like Tony Robbins, Dr. Phil and Deepak Chopra.
Almost none of what is contained in these books has any kind of scientific backing and the people who sell it know it. There is a word for deliberate deception to secure unfair or unlawful gain – it’s called fraud. It’s not that Americans are stupid for buying these things; it’s that they are desperate for a solution. So, I thought it would be helpful to highlight those things anyone can do right now, today, for free, that have been scientifically proven to improve mental and physical health. You really can put a price on happiness and, as it turns out, it costs you nothing.
First on the list – volunteering
So, unlike The Secret or Power Posing or the idea that the best way to get a date is to be an insufferable asshole, there are hundreds of studies on the benefits of volunteering. It may feel weird to ask yourself, “What’s in it for me?” when looking to help others. Well, I say the hell with it. Let’s. Get. Weird.
For example, a study of 40,000 people conducted by the University of Ghent concludedthose who volunteered had better health outcomes than those who didn’t volunteer. When comparing volunteers and non-volunteers of the same age, volunteers had health gains comparable to being five years younger.
Researchers found that volunteering directly benefited participants through improved access to psychological and social resources (such as improved self-esteem, self-efficacy and social integration) all of which are found to have an overall positive effect on health. “Likewise, volunteering increases physical and cognitive activity, which protects against functional decline and dementia in old age. Finally, neuroscience research has related volunteering to the release of the caregiving-related hormones oxytocin and progesterone, which have the capacity to regulate stress and inflammation.”
If you’re not apt to take the word of 40,000 people and the University of Ghent, what about this study which found that volunteering – any kind of volunteer – yielded significant benefits in terms of mental and physical health, life satisfaction and social well-being. Or this study which intriguingly found in a “survey of a large, ethnically diverse sample of older adults showed no association between receiving social support and improved health; however, the study did find that those who GAVE social support to others [aka volunteering] had lower rates of mortality than those who did not, even when controlling for socioeconomic status, education, marital status, age, gender, and ethnicity.”
Long story short: There has been no replication crisis when it comes to whether volunteering benefits those who participate in it. And you can do it for free, right now, today. If you’re telling yourself you don’t have the time, are you really sure you don’t have one hour a week to spare? Really? Try telling yourself the same thing when you find yourself in a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter mindless-scroll session. It’s an uncomfortable realization I made for myself.
At the point I began volunteering, the last thing I wanted to do was help another person. Kind of a paradox, right? I was at a point in my life where I could feel my faith in humanity slipping away and yet I knew that kind of attitude was part of the problem. So, I figured I would start by helping those in whom I had never lost faith – animals.
I found the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). PAWS is Philadelphia’s largest rescue partner. It is a no-kill animal shelter which rescues dogs and cats from the city-run kill shelters operated by Animal Care and Control Team (ACCT). [I’m not criticizing the work that ACCT does. They work with the city’s no-kill shelters to save as many animals as they can.] PAWS also operates a low-cost veterinary clinic for pet owners and rescue organizations that cannot otherwise access or afford it.
After a couple of training sessions, I was in the thick of it walking dogs and petting cats. Yes, petting cats counts as volunteering. There were also more humble tasks of doing laundry (so, so much laundry), doing dishes, and cleaning cubbies and kennels. None of it felt like a chore because there was meaning to all of it. Even those endless mounds of laundry. Each clean blanket was a new source of comfort for an animal feeling scared and stressed in a new environment.
Just as there are ample studies pointing the benefits of volunteering, there are numerous studies on the benefits of caring for animals. But I didn’t need a study to tell me that the purr of a cat and the wag of a dog’s tail was good for my body and mind. I could feel it. When you are taking care of animal, you need to be present in the moment as their needs are immediate. That focus on the present moment does wonders against ruminating on the past or anxiously projecting into the future.
Even more importantly, however, I connected with other people who helped restore my faith in humanity through their simple acts of kindness. It reminded me of the importance of perspective. If you see the world as a dark and disappointing place, that is exactly what you will find. However, if you see the world as made up of helpers trying to make things a little bit better each day, the world is no longer so dark. It is full of promise and hope.
Do you have an organization you like to volunteer with? Have you had a good experience volunteering that you would like to share? I would love to hear about it.