busy buying happiness

Jon called around lunch to see how my day was going, and I answered in a rush, “babes, can I call you back? I’m busy buying happiness.” The hubs knows my quirks, so he didn’t ask any questions – just told me he wanted details at dinner.

I try to keep a light tone with most of my rah rah rah posts, but the experiments are usually inspired by a scientific theory on happiness.  My research comes from The Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, The Center for Compassion and Altruism at Stanford University, and, of course, the talented community at TED.

A 2011 TED talk by Michael Norton argued that we can buy happiness if we spend money on others.   What’s more, Norton stated that we can increase our own happiness by spending as little as $5 on another person. $5 for happiness? That sounds like a bargain to me.
I decided to test his theory at one of my favorite places on earth, Forever Yogurt.  A new shop just opened up in south Minneapolis, and so I decided to spend the afternoon buying ice cream for whomever walked in the door.  Well, up to $20.
A woman entered the ice cream shop a few minutes after I finished a tub of  Angel Food Cake/Pumpkin Pie/Nutella, and I was ready to go.  I creepily watched as she filled her bowl of ice cream, loaded up on toppings, and made her way to the register.  And then, it was my moment – I intercepted her at the register and offered to pay.  I said it would make my day if we should let me buy her ice cream.

The woman looked confused, at first, and then she started beaming, “Stuff like this never happens to me.  Thank you so much.”

Isn’t that what people say when they win the lottery or receive an honorary PhD?  Could the free ice cream really have made her that happy?  It seemed so.
The second woman I approached walked in smiling, seemed to get happier as she picked out her ice cream, and was just about over the moon when I offered to pay for it.  She didn’t seem surprised at all, just laughed and said she would pay-it-forward by the end of the day.
The final stranger (they were getting massive bowls of ice cream and $20 only goes so far) was a young girl on her lunch break from the clothing boutique next door.  She said she’d heard about random acts of kindness before, but didn’t think they were common enough to happen to her.  She also said the free ice cream ‘made her day’, and that she was excited to tell her friends about the random act of kindness.
It appeared to me that the strangers were all happier as a result of the free ice cream, but this project was intended to make me happier, not them.  I choose to buy things for strangers, as opposed to friends or family, because I like the idea that they can’t pay me back.  If I bought my friend a t-shirt, she would bring me a book the next day, and the cycle of giving would never end.  A stranger, however, could only repay me by helping another stranger.  A lovely circle, right?

But anyway, I digress.  Did the project work?  Absolutely, but not like I thought it would.  It’s nice to see people get excited, but that alone doesn’t increase my happiness.  What did make me happy, however, was the feeling that I had spent my time wisely.  If I did nothing else today, I had made 3 people smile, and, hopefully, inspired them to feel more compassion for strangers.  I had devoted $20 and 2 hours toward promoting kindness, and that, dear readers, did make me very happy indeed.