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Financial sharing is caring

Winfrey had an epiphany about serving others as the key to happiness when reflecting on her childhood growing up poor in Mississippi.

“It was so rare that we ever got actually, like, a real candy bar, like a Three Musketeers or a Snickers — oh, my God — Almond Joy,” she says. “And I learned for myself, even as a little kid, that the candy bar tasted better if I had somebody to say, ‘Isn't this good?’ — if I could share it with somebody.”

Winfrey isn’t wrong to point out that sharing with others is one key to happiness. The 2023 World Happiness Report says that altruistic acts “improve the subjective well-being” of the giver and the receiver.

Sharing a candy bar may bring up sweet feelings — but financial giving specifically can invoke “more positive feelings” when people reflect on a time “they spent their own money on others versus themselves,” according to a 2020 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

So Winfrey’s right here: sharing can be joy-inducing.

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Social interactions are powerful

Winfrey and Brooks also mentioned that in writing the book, they practiced a second major key to happiness: social engagement.

“When Oprah and I were framing up this book, we got together and spent a bunch of days together in person,” Brooks says. “That was really important — eye contact, touch, talking about these particular ideas.”

A 2022 Harvard Business School study backs this up: varied and regular social interactions lead to a happier life. This is particularly potent when you interact with different tiers of relationships in your life, ranging from coworkers to close friends to family.

Many of the people with the longest and happiest lives cite frequent, in-person social interactions as key. So, again, Winfrey is totally on the money here.

Is Oprah right?

While using your gifts in service of others — whether through altruistic acts or simply connecting — can be linked to happiness, does that mean wealth can’t get you there too?

There’s no denying that money makes life easier. But some academics say there’s a limit. You may have heard of the “hedonic treadmill.” Economists Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton argue in a 2010 paper that your day-to-day level of happiness won’t increase once you earn more than $75,000 a year.

Of course, a lot has changed in the 13 years since. Their number certainly needs an update in these times of inflation and high costs of living. But even with an adjustment, there has also been contradictory research against the hedonic treadmill.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School surveyed 33,391 employed U.S. adults who make a minimum of $10,000 a year about their happiness as related to their income. Their 2021 paper discovered that more money can make you happier — and there isn’t a limit to it.

“The exception is people who are financially well-off but unhappy,” says Matthew Killingsworth, a senior fellow at Wharton and lead paper author in an interview with Penn Today. “For instance, if you’re rich and miserable, more money won’t help. For everyone else, more money was associated with higher happiness to somewhat varying degrees.”

So yes, money can make you very, very happy. But you also can’t solely rely on money to make you happy because, as the data also shows, you need people and purpose to fuel you. It sounds like Winfrey has the best of both worlds. So perhaps she really does know the secrets to happiness.

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Sabina Wex is a writer and podcast producer in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, Fast Company, CBC and more.

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