At the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine, this weekend I caught up with social psychologist Liz Dunn who studies links between money and happiness. Recently she’s found a possible link between generosity and physical health and I asked her about it:
[Liz Dunn] We did a little experiment where we gave people some money, ten dollars. And we said, “Hey, you can keep all this money for yourself or you can give as much of it as you want away.” What we found, consistent with all our past research, was that the more money people gave away, the happier they felt. Conversely though, the more money people kept for themselves the more shame they experienced.
And the more shame people felt the more we saw their cortisol levels rise. Now this is important because cortisol is thought to explain some of the links that we’ve seen between stress and disease. So we know that over time elevated levels of cortisol cause wear and tear on the body.
So what we think is that we may be seeing just the first hint of this kind of missing link between generosity and health. So we know that a lot of generous behaviors are associated with consequences for health. Engaging in volunteer work is good for longevity. So why is that? Well, we are beginning to see that cortisol may play a role.