Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose & Wealth

Inside the Science of Purpose: Elizabeth Dunn

By Oren Shapira


In our continuing series of monthly posts on the NPP blog called “Inside the Science of Purpose,” we get access to our NPP network members’ minds and discover how they bring purpose into both their research and their own lives.

This time we interviewed Professor Elizabeth Dunn from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.


Tell us in a few sentences about your NPP project.

The goal of our research is to illuminate the psychological factors that ‘flip the philanthropy switch,’ turning the financially successful entrepreneurs of today into the Warren Buffetts of tomorrow. Previous research shows that having a lot of money—or even just thinking about wealth—can lead people to focus on their own needs, rather than helping others.  And yet, in recent years, we’ve witnessed some of the world’s wealthiest individuals engaging in spectacular acts of generosity, such as signing the Giving Pledge. So, the link between wealth and selfishness is not inevitable. In our current project, we are examining whether the way people think about their own wealth shapes whether they are willing to use it to benefit others rather than themselves.

How do you think this research can contribute to the understanding of purpose?

To me, research on money and happiness suggests that wealth is often a missed opportunity. Money should be capable of helping individuals to build a sense of happiness and purpose in their lives. And yet, in some of our newest research, we find that people with more money actually derive less meaning from daily life. Given that helping others provides a powerful pathway to purpose, uncovering the factors that encourage charitable giving may help individuals use their wealth in more meaningful ways—enhancing their own sense of purpose while benefiting society more broadly.

purpose meaning spending positive psychology wealth philanthropy happiness behavioral science

Professor Elizabeth Dunn (Photo Credit: Kris Krung)

Purpose is not something that has traditionally been studied in behavioral science. Do you think your work will help to make the subject more attractive and tractable for future researchers? Why?

When people hear words like meaning, purpose, and happiness, they often assume that these concepts are too warm and fuzzy to be put under the microscope. In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. By showing that simple interventions like the ones we’re developing can enhance individuals’ sense of meaning and purpose, our research may help to convince future researchers to tackle these topics, too.

Please consider the times when you personally feel the strongest and most satisfying sense of purpose in your life.  What do you find most helpful in promoting those experiences?

I feel the strongest sense of purpose in my life when I’m doing something that completely absorbs my attention—whether that’s surfing, writing a manuscript, or playing with my one-year-old son. Promoting these experiences requires keeping distractions at bay, while focusing on the present moment. Sometimes, that’s simply a function of the environment—it’s hard to think about much else with a 6-foot wave bearing down on me. But other times, that means actively blocking out potential distractions, which can be particularly challenging when we’re surrounded by the siren song of smartphones and other technological innovations. In some of our newest work, my lab is taking up this issue by examining how we can navigate technology, so that it promotes our well-being rather than undercutting it.

Thinking broadly about all of your research interests, if money were no issue, what is the study you would most want to run?

In our recent book, “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending,” Mike Norton and I pulled together diverse strands of research to propose 5 practical principles designed to help people spend their money in happier ways. Although these principles are well-grounded in existing research, I would love to conduct a full randomized controlled trial (RCT) in which we would assign different groups of people to follow each principle. This would allow us to provide a stringent test of the efficacy of each principle and to examine which principles worked best for which individuals. Many people who have read the book have written to me and shared their own experiences with each principle, but pulling all the principles together into a huge, well-controlled study would be amazing.


Next month in “Inside the Science of Purpose” we will interview Professor Christopher Hsee from Chicago Booth about his work on enhancing purpose through activity.


Oren Shapira is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose & Wealth

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