My research interests lie at the intersection of social psychology, positive psychology, economics and judgement and decision making. My research questions often include the study of what makes people happy, the emotional consequences of kind or generous behavior, and the well-being outcomes of specific spending choices. Most of the research I have conducted thus far examines people’s perceptions of the money and happiness relationship and whether people reap greater happiness from spending money on others (i.e. prosocial spending) than when spending the same amount of money on themselves.
A few ongoing projects in the lab include...
When does one kind act predict another? Some of my previous work with Liz Dunn and Mike Norton has demonstrated a positive feedback loop between generosity and happiness, such that reflecting upon a time one committed a kind deed increases happiness levels, and the happier one feels, the more likely they are to engage in a generous act again (Aknin, Dunn, & Norton, 2011). While this feedback loop seems intuitive, these findings conflict with classic moral licensing research, which has shown that committing one kind act actually decreases the likelihood of engaging in another (Merritt, Effron, & Monin, 2010; Monin & Miller, 2003). I'm currently conducting a field study to explore the reason for this contradiction and test one possible explanation.
Giving makes young kids happy Young kids start to engage in helping behaviors before the age of two, but why? One possible reason is that giving, sharing, and helping (forms of prosocial behavior) make the giver feel good and experience a feeling of "warm glow". Some recent research that I've conducted with Kiley Hamlin and Liz Dunn supports this possibility; we found that young kids were happier giving treats away than they were when receiving the same treats themselves (Aknin, Hamlin, & Dunn, 2012). We're currently running follow up studies at the Centre for Infant Cognition to gain a greater understanding of the ontogenic origins of emotionally rewarding prosocial acts.
Religion and Happiness: What's the connection? A vast literature has shown that religious people report higher levels of happiness, but this well-documented correlation cannot identify whether religion or religious reminders actually cause happiness. It’s possible, for instance, that happier people are more likely to seek out religion, that religion causes happiness, or that some related third variable (e.g., social relationships) is responsible for this well documented relationship. New research with Azim Shariff is exploring the causal impact of religion on well-being.
Vicarious offense Previous research has shown that humans can share and experience the emotions of other people (i.e. experience empathy), but are their times when people feel stronger emotions on behalf of others than themselves? New research with Gillian Sandstrom is examining whether, when, and why we experience stronger emotions for others (e.g., when your best friend is insulted) than we do when experiencing the same event ourselves.
Positive downstream consequences of prosocial spending While some of my past research has shown that spending money on others (prosocial spending) increases happiness for the spender (Dunn, Aknin, & Norton, 2008), my collaborators and I have been interested in learning how far the benefits of generous spending extend. Could generous spending produce changes that benefit groups, such as sports and sales teams? Ongoing research with Lalin Anik, Jordi Quoidbach, Liz Dunn and Mike Norton is looking at whether generous spending leads to positive outcomes, such as sports wins and team sales in these group contexts.