Happiness 2.0: Surprising Sources of Joy - Transcripts
This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. In 2008, psychologist Liz Dahn was invited to go on a vacation. The man she had just started dating and three of his high school buddies wanted to go on a road trip with their girlfriends. They planned to drive an RV from their home in Vancouver to the Arctic Ocean. Liz said yes. It seemed like an adventure. It sounded like fun. It felt romantic.
It was a mistake.
You could rank it as probably top three worst vacations ever. One by one, the other girlfriends decided that an RV trip to go swimming in the Arctic Ocean was not their idea of a good time. When the RV rolled out of town, it was just Liz and four men who thought they were having
the time of their lives. So it was kind of like living through one endless day on this highway that never ended
with four Canadian men who were increasingly driving me crazy. The road trip led Liz to important insights about human nature. Today, in the latest in our Happiness 2.0 series, we revisit our 2020 conversation with Liz Dahn and explore the relationship between memory and happiness. We look at how things that start out fun can turn miserable and how our minds can take miserable experiences and remember them as fun. Anticipation, memory, and the winding road to happiness today on Hidden Brain. Elizabeth Dahn is a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia. Along with Michael Norton, she's the author of Happy Money, The Science of Happier Spending. Liz told me that at one point in the interminable journey to the Arctic Ocean, she decided she'd had enough.
She tried to escape. Yeah, I think this is one of my low moments of my life. My smartphone didn't work there because we were so far north, so I sought out a pay phone. This was shortly after the waste disposal system in the RV had sprung a leak. And I was just like, I am over this vacation. And I called Air Canada and I said, how can you get me out of here? And they said, well, we can't get you back to Vancouver in my home, but we could get you to Edmonton. And I was like, can you put that ticket on hold for me?
Because at that very moment, all I wanted was to get out of there. Did you actually manage to catch one of those flights?
What happened? You know, by the time I got back from making this phone call, the guys had realized that I was losing it and they made a plan to try to make things better for me. So one of my friends, who's a cancer researcher, like took me aside and he's like, let's have a nice science talk that will make you feel better. You know, other guys were like, why don't we, why don't we like read women's magazines and talk about them? Like they had somewhat misguided ideas of what was going to be helpful, but like they were really trying. And so then I was like, okay. And, you know, they convinced me, like, it's almost time to turn around. Like you can do this.
And you know, in the end, I did make it through, but I will never go back. When the waste disposal system sprang a leak, I understand this is how you derived a nickname on the trip.
Tell me about that. Yeah. So the guys nicknamed me Blackwater Liz, Blackwater refers to waste disposal in an RV. Let me be clear, I had nothing to do with the RV waste disposal system springing a leak, but for whatever reason, like this name stuck to me and they still refer to me that way.
This has not got away. And did you actually go, did you see the Arctic Ocean? Did you go swimming in it?
What did you do when you got there? Yeah. So we did when we finally made it to the Arctic Ocean, we did get to go swimming in the Arctic Ocean. We got to see belugas in the wild.
So that was, you know, very cool and very special. So here's the question that arises from this whole trip. You were obviously miserable through much of the trip, but looking back on it now, do you sort of think of the trip as being a miserable experience or do you think of it as being
a rewarding experience? Well, I think that it makes a good story. And so I appreciate that. Like it's this aspect of my life that, you know, was very unique. Not many people have swum in the Arctic Ocean or got into hangout with belugas in the wild. And so it was this, you know, unusual experience that I think contributed to sort of my overall life story. It also is this really powerful source of bonding for me and those four Canadian men, you know, one of whom I ended up marrying. And so we still, you know, talk about it. It's when one of us is going through a rough time, we pull up pictures from that trip and talk about it. So we really enjoy the memory of it.
But you know, I still remember that I was not having a good time while it was happening. So there's been this really rich debate in the field of psychology, but also just as people have thought about their own lives, about the value of spending your money on buying things versus buying experiences. And I'm wondering when you think about an experience like your trip to the Arctic Ocean, how does that dovetail or contradict this larger body of research that has looked at the differences between experiences and things?
Well, the research on the value of buying experiences really suggests that a lot of the benefit that we get from buying experiences comes after they're over. So you know, one of the great things about experiential purchases is that we can reminisce about them. And I really do enjoy reminiscing about this experience. Of course, you know, many experiences are enjoyable in the moment, but that's not necessarily where the real value of experiential purchases comes from. Instead, the big sort of benefit of experiential purchases over material purchases seems to come after they're over, which to me is pretty interesting because, you know, material things stick around. So I am not like a frequent clothes shopper. So I literally still have clothing that I had on that trip, right? Like that stuff has stuck around. That experience, of course, is gone. It's you know, long since over, but you know, it lives in my memory. And it turns out memory is a great place to store stuff, right? So when we store stuff in our closet, it kind of gets outdated, it gets torn up over time.
But our memories have this amazing property of being able to make things more positive or at least funnier over time, because we've retold this story so many times, like just starting to think about it kind of makes me laugh.
And so that's kind of the magic of experiential purchases. Perhaps you've noticed the magic of experiential purchases in your own life. Liz cites a study that tracks students going on a three week bike trip across California. During the trip, 61% reported the trip was worse than they expected.
But after the trip was over, only 11% of the students said the trip was disappointing. You know, our memories are great at sort of making the best of things. And you know, in my case, the Arctic trip was like so far from the kind of vacation that I would like to take that it's hard for my mind to completely bridge the giant chasm between like my ideal vacation and that trip. But like most other vacations that we take have a much smaller sort of a little gap between what we ideally would have wanted and you know, the way things actually work out. So you know, maybe you go to Hawaii and it rains for several days, but like your memory can kind of focus on the days that you were out on the beach and forget about those days you were stuck inside or you can think about how it was actually kind of fun, you know, sitting around eating salt and vinegar chips and playing cards. And so when there's a pretty small gap between how we expected to feel and how we actually felt, that's where our minds can kind of jump in and the sort of positive expectations that tend to surround our experiences can actually sort of paint over the little bits of negativity
that might have occurred during the experience itself. I'm also struck by the fact that when experiences are strongly negative, in fact, when we have perhaps not traumatic experiences like your trip to the Arctic and had all these downsides, when you look back on it, there is something sweet about it. I mean, you cite the Roman philosopher Seneca who said that things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember. And there is some truth in that, isn't there? That once you've been through something really difficult, there's actually a special pleasure
that comes from thinking back on it. Absolutely. I mean, one experience that really stands out to me is on that Arctic road trip. We did this thing. There's this bar in the Canadian Arctic you can go to and you do a shot while having pressed up against your lips, the toe of a dead man. And this is like this classic sour toe cocktail experience that people like to have. And let me tell you, it is not pleasant, like having a dead toe up against your face. I can't recommend it, but we still have this fun memory of this thing we all did together. And it's fun to sort of remember and reflect on it. And I feel this real connection with the Arctic because I had this quintessential experience
of this sour toe cocktail. As a non-Canadian, forgive me for asking what seems like an obvious question, but how does a bar obtain a dead person to get a dead toe pressed up against you while you're having
your cocktail? So there's this whole legend surrounding it about like the first guy that decided to donate his toe to the bar, but then it became such a tradition and a legacy that now they have a long lineup of toes, people who are waiting for the honor of their toe being taken upon
their death to be included in this magical cocktail experience. So we're going to talk a little bit later in the conversation about some of the wise and brilliant things that Canada does, but I'm actually going to put this one on the other list, Liz, if you don't mind.
It doesn't seem to be my cup of tea if you don't mind. But you say that, but then if you experience it, you'll have this great story and you'll
remember it fondly. So you've made a case really in the last few minutes of why it's smart to spend money on experiences, that in some ways we anticipate experiences very strongly, we look back on experiences very fondly, they give us great stories to tell. I want to spend a moment talking about the potential benefits of spending money on physical objects as well. You once wrote a study titled The Unsung Benefits of Material Things, where you analyzed people's satisfactions with material purchases and experiential purchases.
What did you find, Liz? Yeah. So this study came about because after I wrote my book Happy Money and the first chapter was called Buy Experiences, I gave it out to a bunch of the grad students in my department and this very smart young grad student named Aaron Wiedemann came to see me and he's like, I love the book, I think chapter one was wrong. He's like, I think this whole Buy Experiences recommendation is bunk. And so I was like, okay, great, sure, I just published this book and you think the first chapter is completely wrong, let's talk about that. So we ended up teaming up to conduct the study and his insight was that previous studies had captured how people felt about their past experiential purchases and their past material purchases, but they hadn't necessarily captured people right in the moment as they were enjoying meaningful material and experiential purchases. So Aaron was really dedicated and he actually devoted his Christmas vacation to studying this issue. So he conducted this study where we asked people to tell us about either a material thing or an experience that they had received for Christmas. And he began texting them three to five times a day, every single day, starting on Christmas day, and he followed up with them, you know, every single day for two weeks. And one of the things that he discovered was that people did actually get more frequent happiness from material things. So material things had this unsung benefit, which was that, you know, they are kind of always around. So for example, I have a leather jacket that I really like and every time I put it on, I kind of feel a little bit happier, you know, I'm not like freaking out.
I'm just like a little bit happier. So it was that sort of little small boost in momentary happiness that these previous studies had kind of overlooked. And so that's what we saw in our study was that material things do provide this small
but frequent boost to happiness. And in contrast, experiences in some ways might give you the tallest peaks, right?
So in other words, they might be less frequent, but the peaks are going to be much higher. Exactly. So when we asked people about the intensity of happiness that they were experiencing, we saw that these experiential Christmas gifts gave people much bigger peaks, much more intense bursts of happiness, whereas the material things gave people this sort of lower dose but more frequent feeling of happiness. So in that sense, you might think of it as like two flavors of ice cream, you know, experiences are like gelato with this intense burst of happiness, but then it's gone. And then on the flip side, you know, material things are more like a big thing of fro-yo where they're not as amazing in any one moment. But you can have it for a while. And so, in that sense, I think material things maybe got a little bit of a bad rap.
So maybe, instead of saying that experiences make you happy and things don't, it might be wiser to say that experiences give you, as you say, a different kind of happiness. They give you more anticipation, better memories. But often, in the moment, things can give you many small moments of pleasure. And part of the question about happiness is what kind of happiness do you prefer?
Exactly. So do you want those sort of low level moments of contentment that material things might provide? Or do you want these like bursts of joy that you might get from experiences? Now, from what I said so far, it does seem like experiences and material things are kind of on an equal playing field. And it sort of depends what, what flavor of happiness you want. But we actually also followed up with our same participants six weeks after Christmas. By this point, they must have been really sick of us, but they still filled out another survey for us. And, you know, we asked them how they were feeling about their Christmas gift at that point. And what we found was that six weeks after Christmas, people were significantly more satisfied with their experiential gift than people were with material gifts. And so this was really interesting to us, because again, it suggests even though the experiential purchases or experiential gifts in essence were gone by that point, like most people had already, you know, enjoyed their spa day or or gone to the hockey game, or whatever it was that they'd received for Christmas, but they actually felt more satisfied with it six weeks after Christmas compared to people who had gotten these material gifts. So in that way, you know, I think Aaron was right, when grad school was right, that like the advice to buy experiences might be a little too simple, but I feel like I kind of had the last laugh in saying, yeah, but by six weeks afterward,
like experiences still win. When we come back, why the pursuit of happiness can feel like being on a treadmill and how to get off it. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Have you ever noticed that your loved ones can seem like totally different people when they are around strangers or acquaintances? Maybe it's your mom, so grumpy over her breakfast cereal, chatting and laughing with colleagues 10 minutes later on Zoom, or your toddler on the brink of a meltdown at home who becomes a perfect angel when you bring him into daycare. Liz Dunn first noticed something similar when she was in grad school. She had a boyfriend, Benjamin,
and he did something that she found pretty annoying. So when Benjamin was in a little bit of a bad mood, he would come to me, his longtime girlfriend, and he would act kind of cranky and grumpy, but if we happened to run into random acquaintance or even a stranger, Benjamin would perk right up, acting all pleasant and cheerful as social norms demand. And what I noticed is that afterward, he would actually be in a much better mood. As a result of his own sort of pleasant, cheerful behavior, he would get himself into a better mood. And so, you know, I started to wonder, is this just some weird, quirky thing about Benjamin, or is this part of the way that humans behave? And so I decided to bring in about 100 romantic couples into the lab
to try to get to the bottom of this. Liz recorded some of the people chatting with their actual partners and some chatting with a stranger. Here's a clip of two people who are in a relationship,
and here's a clip of two strangers.
How long have you been doing that?
Seven months. How are you guys? Just a year.
A year? And you just met over here?
Yeah, yeah, we're in the same dorm. What stands out to me is that when the romantic couple is talking, you hear this sort of low-level, sort of mildly cranky kind of tone, whereas when the strangers are talking, they have this very cheerful, positive, upbeat lilt, which is, you know, what we expect. So in North America, at least, there's this strong demand to act pleasant and cheerful when you're talking to someone that you haven't met before or don't know well. And so, you know, what we see in our study is that when people engage in this positive self-presentation, acting all sort of pleasant and cheerful around someone that you don't know, it actually has benefits for their own mood in a way that they themselves don't seem to foresee. It provides this unexpected boost to our moods when we just act pleasant and cheerful
for the benefit of somebody else. The fact that we tend to present our best sides to strangers rather than to people who inhabit our lives is very sad, but it turns out it's not just our partners that we take for granted. We do this with nearly everything in our lives. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least a certain amount of indifference.
Can you talk about this idealist? Yeah, so this is one of the most important ideas across all of happiness research, which is that whatever we have, we tend to get used to it. So no matter how awesome our lives might be or what wonderful things come into our lives, we tend to get used to them over time.
And the pleasure that they provide gradually diminishes. This has sometimes been called the hedonic treadmill. Give me a sense of the origin of that phrase.
What is that phrase trying to communicate? Yeah, so the hedonic treadmill is such a sad phrase, right? It conveys this idea that we're sort of stuck. No matter how hard we try to get happier, we can't. We're kind of on this treadmill where we always end up kind of back where we started. So try to run faster, work harder to get happier,
and it doesn't do any good. So the metaphor of the treadmill here, of course, is the idea that you're running, but it's still, you're staying in place even as you're running. In other words, it's not changing how happy you're feeling even though it feels like you're doing things that should make you happier. So you and others have thought of ways to fight this psychological phenomenon, this phenomenon of the hedonic treadmill. And you've drawn inspiration from a marketing trick by McDonald's. Here's a clip of a McDonald's customer
talking about the McRib.
Yeah, McRib is so good. Here's the thing, right? It's amazing, it's the best thing ever made.
Why would you get rid of it? I don't like it, I need it,
but it's not gonna stick around. What's going on here, Liz?
So the McRib is a McDonald's sandwich that is only available for a limited time. So at the height of its popularity, McDonald's will pull it off the menu, which at first glance seems a bit counterintuitive. If you have a product that's selling really well, you'd think you'd wanna keep it available. But in fact, by yanking it away,
McDonald's can actually make it more desirable. And how is this connected to the idea of the hedonic treadmill and the psychological insight
about how to overcome it? Well, it turns out that one way to fight hedonic adaptation or get off the hedonic treadmill is to deprive ourselves a little bit. So to not have constant access to the things that we like. So on the one hand, it seems like the recipe for happiness should be to have all the things that we like abundantly available to us all the time. But in fact, what that's a recipe for is massive hedonic adaptation where we just get used to the things that we like and no longer derive as much pleasure from them. So in some of my research, what we've discovered is that actually taking things away from people for a period of time can increase their capacity
to enjoy those things. What kind of things have you taken away from people to see the effects it has on them?
So in my lab, we buy a lot of chocolate. Chocolate is a pretty good, reliable source of happiness. Most of our research participants really like chocolate and get enjoyment from eating it. So in one study that we ran, we brought people into the lab and asked them to eat a little bit of chocolate. And then we sent one group of students away with a big bag of chocolate and asked them to eat as much as they comfortably could over the ensuing week. Meanwhile, we asked another group of students to please refrain from eating any chocolate for a whole week. And finally, we just left this third group of students without any special chocolate-related instructions. Then we brought everybody back into the lab a week later. And once again, we had them eat some chocolate. Now, what we see across most of the sample is that people enjoyed the chocolate significantly less the second time than they had the first time. And this little tiny finding kind of captures the sad reality of the human experience, which is that the more we have something, the less we tend to appreciate it. But there was one group of people that enjoyed the chocolate at least as much the second time as they had the first.
And this was the people who had been asked to give up the chocolate in between. So what this suggests is that taking a break from things that we enjoy can actually sort of renew our capacity to appreciate them.
So there are people, many of them, of course, in Silicon Valley who are taking this idea to its logical conclusion. If scarcity can produce greater happiness, let's engineer scarcity. Take a listen to this clip about someone talking about a dopamine fast.
The rules are no pleasure. Anything you find pleasurable, you're not allowed to do. Examples, electronics, no electronics, no computers, no iPods, no phones, no food, no coffees,
no teas, no juice, et cetera, just water. In other words, Liz, everything you thought would make you happy actually makes you unhappy and everything you thought would make you unhappy actually makes you happy.
Yeah, I mean, I would say taking a break from all of those things, as terrible as it sounds to me to take a break from coffee, taking a break from these things probably won't make you happy while you're abstaining from them. So I'm not arguing that, you know, there's something really pleasurable about having nothing, right? Instead, the idea is that we can kind of restart our happiness systems a little bit by taking a break from the things that we like. I would not advocate, you know, that we should all like move into the woods and give up every kind of pleasure in life. That's not the recipe for happiness. But, you know, the recipe for happiness does involve figuring out how to reset ourselves a little bit so that we appreciate the things that we've started to take for granted. And so that can mean, you know, I think long distance relationships are potentially interesting in that way because, you know, you have these breaks where you're not able to be with your romantic partner. So my husband went to Africa for six months and I really missed him. And I can still sort of channel that, even though we're around each other all the time, even just thinking back to that long period where we were separated can help me appreciate
that he's, you know, around all the time now. Is it possible that experiences are less likely to produce the hedonic treadmill precisely because they are in fact rarer? You can't go to the Arctic Circle every weekend. So investing in experiences rather than things automatically forces you into a form of scarcity that you don't have when you're thinking
about material purchases or material objects. Absolutely, because one of the things that's interesting about experiences is that they feel unique. I mean, you know, my Arctic road trip feels very unique to me. But even going to, like, say a Springsteen concert like I did in grad school, obviously Bruce Springsteen plays all over the world. Many, many people have seen him. But that concert, for me, feels like, oh, well, that was really special and I'm never gonna have that exact experience again. And so, you know, our experiences take on this property of uniqueness that makes it harder to adapt to them. Whereas material things, you know, they're really easy to compare. You know you could replace them with something probably even better. And so material things may be more subject
to this problem of the hedonic treadmill than experiences. Taking time to savor the experiences we've had in the past and whatever experiences are currently available is one way to maximize happiness during a very difficult time. Coming up, we look at another way to increase well-being at a moment when many people are experiencing hardship. Stay with us. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedanta. This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedanta. Whoever said money can't buy happiness didn't know where to shop. You've probably heard some version of this quote about the relationship between money and happiness. Philosophers, novelists, and TV writers have all wrestled with the question of whether we can buy our way to bliss. Over the years, researchers have tried to test the relationship between spending and contentment.
One method they've used is to give money to volunteers and tell them to spend it either on themselves or on others. Social psychologist Liz Dunn says most people expect, no surprise, to get more happiness
from spending the money on themselves. And you know, it's kind of interesting because I do get letters from people saying, you know, why did scientists need to come along and do this research, like this idea of helping others is in the Bible or my mom, you know, told me this. But the interesting thing is that when you bring money into the picture, people just don't seem to realize that that $20 bill in their pocket
might be better spent on somebody else than on themselves. So some years ago, you were sitting down with an accountant and going over your taxes, and the accountant stops on the line that talks about your charitable contributions. As someone steeped in the literature on the psychological benefits of generosity, was your accountant worried
that you were giving away too much of your money? He was not worried that I was giving away too much money. He had read about my research, you know, the downside of having your work prominently featured in the media is that like your accountant reads about it. And so when he saw the charitable giving line of my tax return, he shot me this look of like, I see through you to like the barest, ugliest part of your soul, you know, and you're telling everybody else how happy it would make them to give money away. But like, this is not impressive. How much money you're giving away. And it really like stood out to me, you know, I had this like moment of reckoning of like, oh God, okay.
I need, I really need to be doing better. Why were you not practicing what you were preaching, Liz?
And what would happen if you, when you, when you tried? Well, you know, I would give money to charities here and there. And one thing that I was really wrestling with is that I wasn't getting much of an emotional boost from these giving experiences that I was having, which was really puzzling to me because, you know, we saw that even in parts of the world where people were struggling to meet their own basic needs, giving money to charity was linked to greater happiness. So I was like, what is wrong with me? You know, why am I not feeling this emotional boost
that all of my research suggests should be there? And you started to ask yourself, is there something wrong in the literature or is there something wrong with you?
Yeah, and so, you know, maybe there is something wrong with me, but I guess my first inclination was to explore whether we'd miss something in the research. So maybe it's not the case that giving to charity always makes people happier. Maybe it actually depends how you do it. So maybe I was just doing it wrong. And so I started with my colleagues and students exploring when people get the biggest emotional boost from giving to charity.
And when that emotional boost seems to sort of disappear. You ran a study where you asked people to give money to UNICEF. Tell me what UNICEF does
and what the experiment was about. Yeah, so UNICEF is a wonderful charity that really helps to support children's health initiatives around the world. But UNICEF is such a big, broad charity that it can be a little hard to really envision how your own small donation is gonna really make a difference. So we asked people to give money to either UNICEF
or another charity called Spread the Net. And what does Spread the Net do and what's the difference between their approach
and the UNICEF approach? So Spread the Net has a lot in common with UNICEF. They're actually partners. They both care about promoting children's health. But Spread the Net has a very clear and specific mission. And so what they do is that for every $10 donated, they purchase one bed net to protect a child for malaria. So if you make even a small donation to this charity, you have a very clear idea of how you're making a difference. So we chose these charities because they're both important, worthwhile, working kind of the same general space. But Spread the Net is giving donors a very clear window into how their dollars are making a difference. Whereas with UNICEF, it can just be a bit harder to really understand
how your donation is really gonna change anyone's life. So in other words, when you're asking people to give, it's really helpful that they know what their money is getting, that the more specific feedback that you can give them about the good that their money is doing, the greater the likelihood that their generosity is gonna give them a warm glow
and the greater the likelihood that they actually give. Yeah, so people get the biggest emotional boost from giving to others when they can really envision or better yet directly see how their dollars are actually making a difference. So in the case of our spread the net and UNICEF experiment, what we discovered was that the more money people gave to spread the net, the happier they tended to feel afterward. But kind of remarkably, this emotional boost of giving was eliminated when people gave money to UNICEF. So this suggests that just giving money to a worthwhile charity doesn't automatically inherently trigger this emotional benefit. Instead, it really does seem to matter whether you can have a window
into how you're actually having an impact on others' lives. So besides the value of telling people exactly how their money is going to be used and to give them a sense that this is the impact it's going to have, you're also finding that the connection that people have with the object of their generosity seems to matter. And I'm wondering if you can tell me a personal story of your involvement with the Syrian refugee crisis and how your work with them has shaped
how you've come to understand the psychology of generosity. Yeah, so at the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis when stories about that terrible, terrible crisis were on the cover of the newspaper every day and we were seeing really just horrifying photos of even young children dying in this crisis, I was overcome with the desire to do something to help. My first inclination was to donate money to big reputable charities that were doing good work on this issue. And that's exactly what I did. But again, I just didn't feel much of an emotional boost at all from it. I just felt like I wasn't making a difference. And so luckily I live in Canada and here in Canada I discovered we have this incredible program called Group of Five. So the idea of the Group of Five is that any five Canadian citizens can actually privately sponsor a family of refugees. And you have to raise enough money to support the family for their first year in Canada. And then they actually get on a plane to your city. So they moved your city and you're responsible for them for their first year in Canada. And this is a big undertaking.
And one of the things that I think is so awesome about this program is that no matter how sort of wealthy and connected or smart you might be, you are not allowed to do this alone. And it happened that a bunch of my friends were interested in this as well. So I remember we all got together at someone's house one night and talked through it and thought, you know, is this something that we could do? And by the end of that night, we pretty much decided like, okay, let's try to do this. So the first step was that we had to raise the money. So in our case, we had to raise about $40,000. That turned out to really be kind of the easy part because everyone was very concerned about the Syrian refugee crisis at that time. And people really opened up their wallets and gave. One of the big challenges, of course, is finding them a house. And so the family that we brought over had five kids, which is pretty much unheard of in Vancouver. Like in Vancouver, housing is very expensive. Most people have zero, one or two kids.
So that was a huge mission in and of itself. We found them a house, we filled it up with furniture. We stuffed their fridge with some nice fresh food. And then before long, it was time for us
to go to the airport and meet our family. Liz and her friends gathered in an airport waiting room
with welcome signs and balloons. And I still think about this moment where the doors are opened from customs and our family of seven walked through those doors. And as soon as they saw us, the father who's this very strong, emotionally resilient man, his eyes just filled with tears at seeing us. And his wife was also quite overcome with emotion. Her sister had come to Canada previously through the same program. So they were with us too. And so we got to see these two sisters be reunited after being separated for 15 years. So we got to be there for that moment where these two women came back together. And that experience, it still gives me chills now when I think about it. And it's so far removed from the experience of going onto a website and donating money to charity and hoping that it makes a difference for somebody at some point, right? In this moment, we could see everything that our group had contributed
really reshaping the lives of this whole family. I'm struck that you use the phrase, our family, when you describe this Syrian family that came in. I mean, at this point, this is not just a them that you're helping. This is an us that you're helping.
Yeah, and so when we first took on this project, we would always just refer to the refugees, which I think is the way that most people talk about refugees, right? And now it sounds so weird to me to refer to them as the refugees, right? because I think from the moment that they walked through the doors at the Vancouver Airport, like the children in this family just climbed into my heart. They'll just be there forever. And yeah, so it's a really amazing experience to know that you've been able to alter the course of life for a whole family. After we met them at the airport, we got to take them to their new home. We got to play soccer with them in the front yard, show the kids their bedrooms. One of my friends, my friend Kylie, had brought her daughter over a week or two earlier, and together they had decorated the girl's bedroom to try to make it just the way a pre-teen girl would want it. So basically, we put quite a bit of thought into trying to create not just this house for them, but create this home for them, and this feeling of being able to say to them, you're home. This is your place now.
Certainly the most profoundly rewarding experience of my life. So when you had this group come together, the Canadian government requires that at least five families come together. But I understand that you actually built a larger group. Tell me about that group, and tell me about the dynamics in that group before this family came over. I'm imagining that actually this was a source of bonding for the group itself, that in other words, you were establishing ties with one another separate from the ties that you were
establishing with this Syrian family that you were bringing over. Absolutely. So in the end, there were more than 25 people involved in our group, and about six or seven of us who were very deeply involved. And we were constantly having to overcome challenges, problem solve together. One of the things that I loved about this experience is that I really got to see my friends' strengths. So most of the people that I was working with closely on this project, I already cared about, I was already good friends with, but I hadn't necessarily seen everything they were capable of. So one of my friends, for example, is a nurse, and she can just take over any situation, get everything under control, and fix whatever is going wrong. And she just amazed me time and time again through this process. I just got to see these strengths of hers that in our casual day-to-day friendship,
I hadn't gotten to experience. So it's so interesting, because the difference here is not just between writing a check and helping a family. Just in terms of financial help, I'm guessing you probably have donated far more financially than you would have ever written in a check to any organization, not just in terms of time, but just in terms of the resources you're giving this family, the help you're giving the family. Essentially, you essentially had an open checkbook as you're working with this family, but it's also—you're not even thinking about the money, it sounds like, because at this point, you're not actually helping someone else. You're actually helping them as if you were to help your own family members, and you're not thinking of it as an act of generosity. You're just saying this is how it, this is what it means to be Liz.
Yeah. And I think this was something that really struck all of our group members is that once our family arrived, it just seemed obvious that we were just going to do whatever they needed. We were just going to, you know, whatever problem arose, we were going to help them figure it out, you know, again and again. I've been just stunned by the level of generosity that my group members have shown, not only in terms of the financial support, but also, you know, my friend Mandy dropped all of the work that she was doing one day when the family needed to go to a clinic and, you know, needed her help in getting there and in navigating that system. And you know, the oldest kid in the family who was 13 when he arrived, he just kept saying, I just want to be on a soccer team. And so one of my friends was able to find a team, even though it was the middle of the season, she found a coach who was willing to add a last minute player who had just arrived in Canada. And I just remember seeing him kind of running onto the soccer field and, you know, getting high fives from these teammates who were opening up their team to him. People have just been ready to sort of drop what they're doing and help this family. And I think that too has really just increased the depth of my relationship with my close
friends who've been involved in this because I've just seen the best side of their humanity. Elizabeth Dunn is a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia. Along with Michael Norton, she's the author of Happy Money, The Science of Happier Spending.
Liz, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.
Thank you so much for having me. Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Bridget McCarthy, Annie Murphy-Paul, Kristen Wong, Laura Correll, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero this week is Hidden Brain listener and supporter, Kristen Lee. Kristen tells us that she started listening to the show about two years ago. She was drawn in by an episode we did about identical twins. She writes, I was hooked from that point on. Now you can find me listening when I run, when I drive, when I clean, when I'm getting ready for work in the morning, pretty much any time I have a spare moment. We're so happy to be a part of your daily routines, Kristen. Thank you for listening and for your support.
If you'd like to join Kristen in helping to bring more episodes of Hidden Brain to life, please go to support.hiddenbrain.org. That site again is support.hiddenbrain.org. Next week we conclude our happiness 2.0 series with a look at an emotion that can be both exhilarating and destabilizing and the profound effects it has on our mental and physical
health. You just share more when you're feeling awe. You cooperate more. You give more just with a minute or two of looking it up at some trees.
I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.