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Georgetown Researchers Contribute to UN World Happiness Report

Two Georgetown researchers – Abigail Marsh and Shawn Rhoads (G’22) – are contributors to the World Happiness Report 2023.

A publication of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), the World Happiness Report provides a birds-eye view of happiness across more than 150 countries alongside granular discussions of causal mechanisms and approaches to increase happiness. This year marks the 11th annual publication of the report. 

Marsh and Rhoads have co-authored a series of papers on altruism. For the World Happiness Report, they co-wrote a chapter analyzing the relationship between altruism, happiness and well-being. Despite the coronavirus pandemic bringing disorder, uncertainty and sickness, the report notes surges in altruistic acts, such as charity donations, volunteering and even strangers helping one another in 2020 and 2021. 

The Relationship Between Altruism and Happiness

Shawn Rhoads (G’22).

The researchers define altruistic acts as those that are costly to the actor without delivering any tangible benefit. Altruistic acts can, however, provide a boon to well-being. This increase in well-being extends from beneficiaries of the acts to the altruistic actors themselves and even third parties. 

“Normally people who receive altruistic help will experience improved wellbeing, and this helps to explain the correlation across countries,” said Marsh. “But in addition, there is a lot of evidence – experimental and otherwise –  that helping behavior increases the wellbeing of the helper. This is especially true when the helping was voluntary and mainly motivated by concern for the person being helped.” 

For beneficiaries of altruistic acts, the material effects can be immediately obvious, such as more money from a gift or improved health outcomes from a marrow donor. However, beneficiaries also report improved well-being with more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions on a daily basis. Likewise, altruistic actors report being happier and more fulfilled. There is even evidence to suggest that altruism has ripple effects on those who witness altruistic acts or who are in the same social networks as direct participants – a rising tide of happiness buoys all moods. 

The relationship between altruism and happiness is also bi-directional, Marsh and Rhoads argue. In other words, happier, more fulfilled people are more likely to be altruistic, but engaging in acts of altruism can lead to more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions. 

“The findings we review suggest a couple of things: first, that there is no inherent conflict between doing good and feeling good,” said Marsh and Rhoads. “Altruism, particularly when it’s from the heart, makes everyone involved feel better – the altruist, the person they help, and most people who witness what happened. And that can lead to a kind of a virtuous upward spiral, because happy people also tend to help more, and to receive more help from others. That may be why we see such a strong and consistent relationship between well-being and helping across countries in the original research we’ve done.” 

Launched by the United Nations in 2012, the SDSN is a nonprofit that advocates for the implementation of UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. 

Marsh, a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience, mentored Rhoads while he pursued his Ph.D. on the Hilltop. Rhoads is now a postdoctoral research fellow with the Center for Computational Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

-by Hayden Frye (C’17)

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