Since 2010, the number of forcibly displaced people around the world has doubled. Over the same period, global greenhouse emissions have continued to climb despite the dire warnings from scientists that we are on a pathway to an apocalyptic increase in global temperatures. Meanwhile, in America, gun violence continues to claim lives. Since the beginning of this year, at least 162 children have been shot dead, some amongst the victims of 267 mass shootings.

So, maybe we don't deserve to feel happy? Quite the contrary: Our research with over 1.5 million people from 161 countries suggests that happy people are not selfish. We found that happier people were more, not less likely, to volunteer their time, donate their money, and help others. The relationship between these prosocial behaviors and happiness could not be explained by how much money people made, or by their gender, age, or religiosity. In fact, being happier predicted being more helpful to others, with about the same magnitude as being richer.

My colleagues and I were not surprised to find that happy people are more generous. A growing body of evidence suggests that happiness drives people to share their time and money for the benefit of others and society. What we found remarkable, however, was how consistently positive the relationship between happiness and such behavior was across nations—from Finland and Japan to South Africa and the United States. Among all 161 nations in our sample, there wasn't a single country where happier people were less giving!

Now, happiness can be a fuzzy concept, so it is worth explaining how we measured it. We used data from the Gallup World Poll, which measures happiness in several related but distinct ways. The most common way is to ask people to evaluate how satisfied they are with their lives as a whole. In the Gallup World Poll, people imagine a ladder with 11 rungs where the lowest rung represents the worst possible life for them and the highest rung represents the best possible life. People are then asked to indicate on which step of the ladder they currently stand.

A different way to measure happiness is to capture how much people experience positive emotions daily. In the Gallup World Poll, people are asked whether or not they had smiled or laughed yesterday and whether they had enjoyed themselves yesterday. We found that how positive people felt on a daily basis and how positively people evaluated their lives were both equally associated with behaviors that benefit others.

But what about negative emotions? Participants were also asked whether they had felt angry, worried, and sad on the previous days. We found that these negative emotions were unrelated to how much people volunteered, donated, and helped others.

It is natural to feel negative emotions in response to negative events. We should feel sad when kids are killed in yet another school mass shooting. We should feel worried about the dire forecasts for the world we will be leaving to our children due to climate change. And we should feel angry at the inaction of our leaders to address these challenges. But feeling sad, worried, or angry every day is not what makes us more likely to make a change in the world.

Our research adds to a growing body of evidence to suggest that those who feel happy in their personal lives are those who take action to make things better. If you want to make the world a better place, you should first take care of yourself. The pursuit of your own personal happiness is not selfish—it is good for everybody.

For Further Reading

Aknin, L. B., Van de Vondervoort, J. W., & Hamlin, J. K. (2018). Positive feelings reward and promote prosocial behavior. Current Opinion in Psychology, 20, 55–59.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1–53.  

Kushlev, K., Drummond, D. M., Heintzelman, S. J., & Diener, E. (2020). Do happy people care about society's problems? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(4), 467–477. 

Kushlev, K., Radosic, N., & Diener, E. (2022). Subjective well-being and prosociality around the globe: Happy people give more of their time and money to others. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 13(4), 849–861.

Kostadin Kushlev is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University; he researches the causes and consequences of being happy.