Midwest Voices

Happiness is tied to good deeds

Updated: 2013-11-16T23:28:48Z


Special to The Star

Not long ago, ABC News reported that a California Goodwill Industries employee handed over $10,000 she had found among some donated books. Lakeisha Williams said, “My concern was somebody was out that money, and I would have liked for them to get it back.”

Williams turned in the money to the manager about a month before the story was shared. If it is not claimed in 120 days, she could collect a reward within the range of 10 percent, and the balance of the money would be put into a donation stream for the agency.

Williams could pocket as much as $1,000. Goodwill Industries President David Miller of San Joaquin Valley said, “We have a policy for rewarding our employees for their honesty and integrity.”

Many would suggest the Goodwill Industries employee did the right thing. Mark Twain has put this sentiment into words, “Honesty is the best policy when money is involved.”

Conversely, others will point out that Williams did not steal the money, and her honesty and integrity may not be sufficiently compensated if the money is claimed. Moreover, Plato observed, “Honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty.”

Still, depending upon what happens during the waiting period or at its end, there is the real possibility that what Williams did could yield a financial reward. But, could there be benefits other than monetary rewards that come into play when facing a decision to keep what has been found or handing it over for reclaiming?

Michael Steger, a psychologist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, conducted a study to determine which behavior makes people happier — seeking pleasure or doing good.

Comparing and contrasting details of the Goodwill Industries employee’s story with Steger’s hypothesis, questions rise in my mind. The Goodwill Industries employee may not gain a financial benefit from turning in the money, but, did “doing good” make her feel better?

Would she have felt better by keeping the $10,000 and using it to fund pleasurable activities? Steger and his colleagues asked a group of 65 undergraduates to complete an online survey for three weeks that assessed how many times they participated in hedonic, or pleasure-seeking behaviors, versus meaningful activities, such as helping others, listening to friends’ problems and/or pursuing one’s life goals.

They found that the more people participate in meaningful activities, the happier they were and the more purposeful their lives felt. Pleasure-seeking behaviors, on the other hand, did not make people happier.

In order to make sure that the relationship between happiness and doing good wasn’t the other way around — that happiness instead leads people to do good things — the researchers looked at which tended to come first. They found that the subjects became happier after they did something good, suggesting that happiness does come about as a result of doing good things.

Based on Steger’s research findings, it would appear that the Goodwill Industries employee will experience a good feeling — happiness — even if she doesn’t collect a reward. I’m glad our world has people like Lakeisha Williams living in it.

Roger C. Williams Jr., Ed.D., of Lee's Summit, is a retired principal, counselor and instrumental music teacher. To reach him, send email to oped@kcstar.com or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.

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