One of the unexpected positive changes of the past three years is that people around the world have become more willing to help others — and that is raising our happiness level overall.
The 2023 World Happiness Report, released on March 20 by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, not only unveiled the latest rankings of the world’s happiest countries but also looked at long-term happiness trends in a post-pandemic era. The report shows that, despite the many overlapping crises of the past three years, people around the world are showing just how resilient they are. In fact, life satisfaction overall has returned to pre-pandemic levels.
This year’s report took a deep dive on altruism and pro-social behavior, and found that for the second consecutive year, everyday acts of kindness have been at a higher level than they were before the pandemic. During a press conference about the report’s findings on Monday, Shawn A. Rhoads, postdoctoral research fellow at Icahn School of Medicine Mount Sinai, explained both the cause and effect of such altruism.
Rhoads co-authored the report’s chapter on altruism with Georgetown University Professor Abigail A. Marsh and defined altruism as “any costly behavior that improves the welfare of another person and does not bring any tangible benefit.” This can include things like giving money to strangers or charity, volunteering, and donating blood, bone marrow and organs. In the post-pandemic world, such forms of giving are on the rise, the study authors noted.
The Joy of Giving
“More people donated to charities, committed to volunteer work and offered help to strangers,” Rhoads said. And, while the benefit to the recipient of the good deed seems obvious, its effects go far beyond that, the research found. Recipients report greater life satisfaction, more positive emotion, and less negative emotion as the beneficiary of such kindness. They also may have feelings of gratitude that leads them to pay it forward and help others in the future. However, the person doing the good deed gets just as much of a dopamine reward.
“People’s happiness increases after helping strangers,” Rhoads said, noting that people who have higher levels of positive emotion are more likely to help others, while at the same time, they boost their positive emotions — creating an upward spiral of happiness.
The report explains that stress and fear often motivate people to take action, and in challenging times, that can emerge as helping others: “People with the most stress show higher altruism,” Rhoads said. “That could help explain the surge of altruism during COVID.”
The Benefits for Bystanders
Even observing acts of kindness can have a positive effect, Rhoads said. Research shows that witnessing altruism increases observers’ mood and energy, motivates them to do good things for others, and increases their desire to become a better person. It results in what the report calls “moral elevation,” which encourages them to adopt a more altruistic approach in their own lives.
Rhoads said the increases in well-being around the globe that were seen during the pandemic and in the difficult times that have followed are “almost certainly” linked to the global altruism that has emerged.
“This leaves me optimistic for the future,” he said.