I've spent the last five years studying happiness. My goal has been to translate psychology and philosophy into exercises for happiness. Through this process, I discovered that happiness means connecting well with existence (and others) and that there are five ways (or muscles) that help you do it. In my book, The Happiness Animal, I describe kindness as the second of those conduits to happiness.
Choosing kindness is often not something we see as being directly related to our happiness. What's in it for us? What you might not realize is that there's a LOT in it for us.
In 1979, psychologists coined the term "helper's high" when they discovered volunteers were happier than non-volunteers, and that your brain produces more dopamine (one of the main chemicals related to happy feelings) when you are involved in altruistic actions.
If you're anything like me, your first reaction to the idea of being a volunteer may be to ignore it. Well, the good news is that you can feel that kindness buzz just by being considerate in everyday interactions. Doing something as simple as helping someone get off the bus with a stroller, making a cup of tea for a co-worker, or paying a stranger a compliment is enough. One of the easiest ways to help someone else is to share a meal.
In November, the United Nations launched ShareTheMeal, an app from the World Food Programme that enables people to "share their meals" with children in need. It costs 50 cents to feed one child for a day. Every time you tap the app, it shares a meal. ShareTheMeal's current goal is to support 1,400 Syrian refugee children between the ages of 3 and 4 in Beirut for a full year. As I'm writing this sentence, my app tells me that so far, 6,489,221 meals have been shared. The number is updated in real time.
I've made this app one of my personal tools for exercising the kindness muscle, so I was especially curious how happy the people behind the app actually are, and whether working for the UN and the World Food Programme actually makes people any happier. So I requested an interview with the head of ShareTheMeal, Sebastian Stricker.
I first met Sebastian over coffee. Since then, I've interacted with him about a half dozen times. He has been unfailingly present, kind, and patient. He has been enthusiastic and genuinely curious in our discussions. He makes frequent eye contact, and his speech is punctuated by easy smiles. He gives the impression of being connected, grounded, and happy. He is quick to ask me if there is anything he can do to help me. And he means it.
Here's what I learned about giving back from Sebastian.
WJ: How does your work with the World Food Programme allow you to use your five happiness muscles (honesty, kindness, curiosity, awareness, and courage)?
SS: I try to be exactly the same person at the WFP as when I'm not at the WFP, so I think the muscles are more part of my personality and I don't consciously need to apply them [at work].
WJ: So your job allows you to remain a more authentic person, because you are essentially the same person there that you are outside of work?
SS: Yes, I would hope that is true. The WFP provides me and my team with the opportunity to apply those five muscles of happiness as [our true selves]. [We] don't need to pretend to be someone else. Of course, it is a bureaucracy and of course there are many different cultures in one place but I'd argue that these five muscles are [universally considered drivers] for happiness.
WJ: Let's talk about ShareTheMeal. Obviously it has the word "share" in it. But when you click on the app, does it really share a meal?
SS: [Laughs.] Umm, no. It's pretty difficult to share your meal with someone who is thousands of kilometers away and suffering from severe hunger. If I was sitting at a table having my lunch, surrounded by children who were starving, I'm pretty sure I would share my meal with them. The app is supposed to give you that opportunity. But in reality, you give that very little sum of money to feed another person. [We decided to call] this ShareTheMeal because we think sharing is one of the most important drivers [of happiness]. It makes the sharer happy. But also it's prosocial behavior, being willing to take care of others. Being willing to feel empathy is powerful. If we can support that, it's one of the most powerful things to create.
WJ: What conversations and events gave birth to the idea? How did you connect well with others to realize the dream of launching the app?
SS: So I think the one conversation and the one insight was that "it's so cheap" to feed someone that if there was an easy way for people to provide those 50 cents to share their meal with someone, they would do it. I think the real trigger was understanding that very little money was needed and that if people had an easy way [to share], they would do it.
WJ: So, once you had the idea, what was the next step in bringing it to life?
SS: I think I was very lucky because I immediately received a lot of interest and support. The very first business partner I met with immediately said yes. I think he liked the combination of having a good, meaningful idea combined with what he perceived as a professionally promising setup. He had just left his job, so it was a very fortunate combination.
WJ: Serendipity. How have you seen this sharing app affect the happiness of others, both volunteers and beneficiaries?
SS: At the moment, we distribute our meals in Lebanon. And we've had one of our team members just travel to Lebanon to visit a refugee camp. It was an overwhelmingly positive experience to not just see through the app—but actually to see where these people are, in real life—receiving the support that we are trying to collect. I think, for him, it was an opportunity to [diminish the distance] between those that can support, and those who need support. [As] you can imagine, the stories from beneficiaries are overwhelmingly positive, [almost] to a degree that it makes you feel uncomfortable. Because it really feels like so little that we do [in the end], but it has such a big impact on their lives.
WJ: So, what does it feel like to hear about the impact ShareTheMeal has had on people's lives?
SS: I haven't understood the feeling yet, but it is a special feeling: I [struggle to] connect the effort that we [make] here and the effects on the ground. And it makes you wonder if you're doing enough. If the work that you're doing so far [has already created this much] change in the lives of those who [desperately need this aid], you wonder [what else you could achieve].
WJ: If the WFP and similar organizations didn't exist, I think that'd be a very cruel world. I'm grateful you do exist... But having yourselves as an example of what can be done, maybe that's going to feed additional ideas.
SS: Sure, but it could have also been bigger. We have now fed about a couple of 10,000 children, but it wasn't a million…yet.
WJ: Do you see a difference in happiness between those people who are paid to work for WFP and those who volunteer their time?
SS: I think money seldom has a relationship with happiness, but there is this minimum amount of money that we need to be able to sustain ourselves. And I think it's a little bit of an unfair comparison because our volunteers are so motivated that they're just super-happy to be part of the team. But there is a decision point, where they need to decide, "Can I continue with this? How do I get the money that I need to live?" And that's where the discussion about the amount of money you need to sustain yourself comes in. You can't volunteer for too long. At some point, it needs to become financially sustainable.
WJ: It's interesting that there isn't much of a difference in the happiness between your volunteers and non-volunteers.
SS: It's enormously liberating to understand that you need a minimum amount of money in order to survive. I think in most cases the amount is a lot less than you'd think. The people who work here make a fraction of what they would earn in a similar role in a for-profit company, but they are so happy to create value that most of them wouldn't trade it [for a higher salary.]
WJ: Do you think that there is more of a culture of kindness at the WFP than in other organizations because of the nature of its work? What about in the ShareTheMeal team specifically?
SS: I think they have made a decision...to be kind. Their job is...to be kind to other people. It's probably more visible than it is in other organizations, just because it's our mission. But we function very similarly to other companies [I've worked at]. I just had a conversation with someone who said, "It's a very consulting-like atmosphere that you have here." So I think we try to adopt the effective project management, management and collaboration techniques, but our mission is slightly different. Our mission is to maximize the number of food rations that we can distribute.
WJ: ShareTheMeal appears to target Syrian refugees as the primary beneficiaries. Are there plans to use the app to provide emergency food relief to those affected by droughts in countries like South Sudan or even the Thar region of Pakistan?
SS: Absolutely. I think for us it's just determining where the need is and where we can effectively implement the program. We don't care if the children are in the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, or somewhere else. It's where we think we can have the biggest impact. That happens now to be in the Middle East. We know the people there, we've built up a network, and we know the realities on the ground.
WJ: It's kind of hunger triage, isn't it?
SS: Yes, absolutely. We really try to do that. We try to actively understand where the conditions are right, with the capacity we have.
WJ: Talking numbers, that leads to my final question: A lot of people (myself included) want to make a difference to help [those] in real need—I'm not talking about giving clothes to Goodwill. What is your advice to others who want to help people in life-or-death situations?
SS: There is no one-size-fits-all response. Try to understand how you can be most helpful. If we take the utilitarian perspective and say maximizing the social impact is the ultimate goal, it's a combination of finding out what you're really good at and what opportunities you're being presented with. I think it's about matching this core competency with the need. So, you'd be creating more social impact and preventing more deaths from hunger in a communication role for one of the organizations fighting hunger.
For someone who's really good at supply chain management, then I'd say come and work in supply chain management at the United Nations or World Food Programme. Have a look at their website and see what openings there are. If someone is making a lot of money, maybe you just continue doing your job. Hopefully it's not a job that destroys social good. If that is not the case, if you are making a lot of money, maybe it's better that you give some of that money to someone else to create a social impact. Maybe with your salary you can hire 10 other people.
So my advice is twofold: Firstly, to understand how our individual competencies fit the needs. 2. Just start helping. A lot of people are wondering what they could do, but it's always better to do something than nothing. Simply by beginning, one gains understanding of the field, builds his or her network, and just becomes more effective over time.