The Pursuit of Happiness

How positive psychology might hold the key to more effective charitable giving

Emily Silvis wants you in her Touch Cave.

A small but supportive crowd shifts in their seats as Emily— visibly nervous, and far from an experienced speaker — stumbles through a three-minute pitch about the Touch Cave, trying to convince a panel of judges that it is an idea worthy of a $1000 grant.

She explains how she’ll make the Touch Cave out of a plastic tunnel stuffed with surprising textures like fuzzy fabrics, pink velvet, and squishy silicon molds shaped like sea creatures. Eyes grow even wider as she says people are supposed to crawl into it and have a “full-body tactic experience” that reminds them of their childhood. There are bursts of laughter when she says the Touch Cave will be installed in the lobby of the marijuana dispensary where she works.

But as Emily goes on, her absolute sincerity wins over the crowd. She believes with the certainty and idealism expected of an art student that the Touch Cave has the power to make people happy. When her three minutes are up, she exits to resounding applause.

Welcome to an Awesome Portland pitch party.

As a charitable organization, Awesome Portland is anything but typical. It doesn’t have any staff members. It holds its meetings in bars. Technically, it’s not even a non-profit.

But every month a board of “micro-trustees” gives $1000 grants to fund what they call “momentary flashes of brilliance.” Artists, dreamers, community leaders, activists, advocates — anyone with an idea that might make Portland a little bit more awesome is welcome to apply.

Awesome Portland belongs to a national association of “awesome” chapters in more than 90 cities worldwide, which together have given more than $2 million to more than 2000 projects.

Twenty-two-and-a-half of those projects have been funded by Awesome Portland. Three more will be added to the list by the end of the January 2016 pitch party.

This pitch party — Awesome Portland’s 20th — took place on a Tuesday night at Dig A Pony, a bar in the industrial southeast neighborhood of Portland that can only be described by using the H word: Hipster.

The trustees have selected six finalists from more than 50 applicants, and the competition is as fierce as it is varied. In addition to the Touch Cave, there is a group of women — led by artist Michelle McCausey, who has what can only be described as spectacular dreadlocks — who are working on an outdoor mural project.

Abby Chroman, a project manager for “impact entrepreneurs” at Portland State University, wants to hire the homeless to teach outdoor survival classes in case a major earthquake hits and many homes are destroyed. Who better to learn from about living on the streets?

A group of dedicated street artists wants to host an art show featuring the graffiti of the Taylor Electric Building, a warehouse that has been abandoned for several years but is now slated to be renovated. (In a perfect microcosm of rapidly gentrifying Portland, the owner of the company that is renovating the warehouse is in the crowd, and he agrees to fund the art show on the spot.)

Two staff members at the Helensview Alternative High School want to create a food pantry with the dual benefit of feeding their students while also giving them job training.

And there’s a finalist with a project called Write Portland a Love Letter. A hybrid of public art and feel-good ephemera, transitory and insubstantial, the kind of thing no decent charity would ever support. That one’s my idea.

And I’m about to find out why anyone in their right might would consider giving their money to me. (Spoiler: it turns out projects like mine just might have the power to make the world a better place for all. More on that later.)

Impact investing. Effective altruism. Hacker philanthropy.

No matter what you call it, there is a sea change taking place in charitable giving. A sea change seemingly on the opposite spectrum of groups like Awesome Portland.

Largely driven by the millionaires and billionaires of Silicon Valley, this innovation involves bypassing traditional non-profits and charities and taking an analytic, market-driven approach to philanthropy, with the aim of maximizing impact in the most efficient way possible.

A key component of this new approach involves removing emotion — sentimentality, the argument goes, produces giving that is more self-indulgent than helpful — and taking an abstract view at the problem. Fewer sob stories, more spreadsheets.

Some proponents go so far as to believe that money is better put to use investing in new technology. Why support a non-profit that temporarily helps people when you can instead invent a new app or product that might be able to save those same people money, which they in turn can spend on whatever they might need?

“Effective altruism is a really noble, exiting idea,” said Lara Aknin, a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University who studies philanthropy –called pro-social spending in academia. “It’s picking up momentum, but it’s not pulling at heartstrings.”

And Aknin’s research has shown that the heartstrings are what make people both feel good about donating money and what brings them back to give again — and in greater amounts — throughout their life. Which is why non-profits, when soliciting money, tend to focus on powerful anecdotal stories rather than on the big-picture problems they are trying to address.

“To feel good about pro-social spending, we need obvious cues,” Aknin said. “It’s harder to feel good about it when you don’t know how it’s helping.”

According to Aknin, people are more likely to feel good when they are helping people they are close to rather than those they don’t know as well — you feel better helping your neighbor, for example, than a stranger. Similarly, people feel better giving to their own community rather than to people who live further away.

While these feelings are all reasonable and understandable, Aknin warns that it can lead to giving that “might seem frivolous, compared to effective altruism, where dollars can go a lot further.”

Aknin is currently researching whether or not effective altruism can create similar emotional rewards to traditional pro-social spending. It’s an uphill battle, she says.

But Michele Larsen, founder of The Joy Team, thinks she might have the answer.

The Joy Team is one of the most successful Awesome Portland grant winners. Since 2009, it has put up 109 billboards in the Portland area with messages like “You are so freaking awesome!”; “Love who you are. We do.”; and “You make a difference.”

Waiting to meet Larsen at a downtown Portland Starbucks, I scrutinize all the women walking through the door. I wonder if I will be able to tell by sight someone who has the job title of Chief Joy Officer. I keep imagining she will be like Molly Shannon’s mid-90s Saturday Night Live character who was a “Joyologist” and wore exuberant clothes, jumped on couches, and had the catchphrase “I love it, I love it, I love it!”

Laughing off the notion as silly, I continue inspecting the customers. Not her. Not her. Definitely not her. Oh my God! Here is my Chief Joy Officer.

Red hair. Green cat-eyed glasses. Bright red lipstick. Pink and purple floral-print pants. A large arm tattoo reading “Anything is possible. Believe in yourself.” A phone cover with a large yellow smiley face saying “Think happy thoughts.” And, I didn’t have time to count them all, what seemed like ten thousand bangles, necklaces, and rings.

With a personality as exuberant as her appearance, Larsen and I fall into easy — and loud — conversation about what the Joy Team is all about.

“The Joy Team is all about building community by spreading joy, optimism, and inspiration,” she says. “And it’s about making people happy. It’s fun. And people like being associated with things that make other people feel good.”

The director of communications for the Oregon chapter of the March of Dimes by day, Larsen spends her spare time working on her ambition of building The Joy Team into a national organization. She’s well on her way.

Last year, she put up 37 billboards across the country (if you plot them out on a map, you’ll see the design of a smiley face) on March 20, International Day of Happiness. The billboards stayed up for four weeks, which means — according to her — they were seen by 10 million people. (“We created 10 million smiles!”)

She’s planning on doing the same thing this year, with even more billboards.

Last August, more than 35,000 people in 10 countries took part in the Joy Team’s “Chalk the Walks” event, in which people are encouraged to chalk positives messages on sidewalks. Word spread entirely via social media, with hundreds of photos being sent in from all 50 states and 10 countries.

It is easy to dismiss such projects as at best fun but inconsequential, at worst as wasting money and time that could otherwise be spent actually helping people. There are countless food banks and battered women’s shelters that could use the money being spent on the Joy Team’s billboards. Making people smile is nice, but isn’t it better to actually help people in need?

In the book Brightsided, Barbara Ehrenreich details her battle with breast cancer and her growing frustration with cancer charities that seemed more interested in cheering her up rather than curing the disease. A sunny outlook, she argues, does not cure cancer. And the whole point of the effective altruism movement is using data to remove feelings from philanthropy — don’t give where it makes you feel good, give where it makes the most impact.

But while Larsen loves making people smile, she doesn’t smile at the notion that The Joy Team is frivolous. She believes she is actually changing lives, and that projects like hers creates emotional rewards for supporters that Aknin has identified as lacking in the effective altruism movement.

She is confident that the Joy Team — and other projects that Awesome Portland supports — has the power to impact lives just as much, and maybe even more, as traditional charities.

And a growing body of research shows she might be right.

The happiness industry is big, and it’s booming.

Dozens of books about the power of happiness have become best-sellers. Thousands of articles and blog posts extol the virtues of positive thought. And the TED Talks. So. Many. TED Talks.

Even corporations and governments have jumped on the happiness bandwagon.

Why? Shawn Achor, a happiness researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage, makes a compelling argument. According to his research, in recent years more than 200 “positive psychology” studies on 250,000 people worldwide have shown again and again that people who are happier live longer, are more successful in the workplace, have better relationships with spouses and friends, and are more involved with their communities.

One of the hottest trends among policy makers is the Genuine Progress Indicator — itself based on Bhutan’s “Gross Domestic Happiness” metric — which studies how well citizens are doing both financially and socially, as opposed to the simple economics of the more familiar Gross Domestic Product. Four states (Hawaii, Maryland, Vermont, and Washington) now consider GPI when setting budgets. Proponents of GPI claim that using the metric will save governments billions of dollars on health care, social services, and jails. A happy population is a population that is healthier, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, is less likely to break the law. And they work harder, leading to increased tax revenue.

Even in Silicon Valley, where a data-driven approach has given businesses a reputation as cold and uncaring, companies provide lavish workplace perks that make workers happier and, studies show, lead to more creativity and innovation.

With so many benefits, could making other people happy allow proponents of effective altruism to give with their head and their heart? Could spending money on the seemingly frivolous and fun projects being done the Joy Team and Awesome Portland actually have a greater impact than giving to traditional charities?

Michele Larsen thinks so.

“Being happy is as important as anything else,” she says. “If you are not happy, the rest of your life doesn’t work very well. Happier people are more successful, they’re kinder, they have stronger relationships, they do better in their jobs, and they are more philanthropic. And they’re healthier. Less stressed. Not as much risk of heart disease and other things. Maybe they eat better and drink less. When you’re feeling good about yourself, you are a lot less likely to pick up a drug habit and a lot less likely to abuse anybody.”

To illustrate the point, Larsen tells a story of receiving a message from a woman who had been suicidal. The woman was ready kill herself — she had already decided how and when she would do it — but didn’t go through with it after seeing a Joy Team billboard that said “You make a difference.” She kept driving past it every day, and slowly she began to recover after deciding that the billboard was meant for her.

“Sounds silly to say that a billboard saved my life,” the woman wrote in a message to Larsen last May, “But I have to tell you, it was the only encouraging word I was receiving at the time. One kind thought, day after day, truly does make a difference.”

Could writing a love letter to Portland save someone’s life? Could giving $1000 to me so I can solicit letters from people really do more good than giving $1000 to a local soup kitchen?

I am not so bold as to make that claim in my three-minute pitch to the Awesome Portland trustees, instead mumbling on about the power of public art projects and making people smile and encouraging some positive thoughts about the city we call home.

I have lived in Portland my whole life, and I cringe when I hear our city described in buzzwords like sustainable, hip, or vibrant. I hate when outsiders think Portland is all crazy doughnuts and artisanal cocktails, not a living, breathing place where natives have hopes and dreams and love their city for so many reasons more than whatever the latest New York Times trendy travel section article says about our city.

My plan is to build a board, tape envelopes to it, and set it up in strategic places around Portland. Once I’ve collected enough love letters, I will create a website to share all the letters and then put together an art installation so people can read all the best letters in person. I want to remind people why they love living here, and help outsiders see beyond the buzzwords and headlines and learn the real reasons Portland is a wonderful place to call home.

After my impassioned three minutes, at the end of which I am keenly aware that I received less applause than the Touch Cave, I sit next to my fellow finalists and wait for the judges to render their decision.

The winner of the $1000 grant? Helensview Alternative School’s food bank and job training program. Inwardly, I breathe a sigh of relief. Steffanie Roache — who pitched this idea — is so obviously dedicated to helping her students, students who have been through extremely difficult circumstances and who are truly in need. How could I feel good about myself taking money away from such a good person with such a good cause? Blather on all I want about the power of happiness and positive psychology, but it just wouldn’t have felt right for my silly project to win.

But wait. Like out of a late-night infomercial… there’s more! Not an extra set of steak knives, but an additional $500 grant to another finalist, whose project they loved just as much but thought didn’t need as much money.

Just like that, Write Portland a Love Letter is born. I walk up to accept the grant, smiling with shock and giddiness.

“Remember, we’re not an actual non-profit,” Courtney Dillard, an Awesome Portland trustee, tells me as she hands me an envelope full of five $100 bills. “We pay in cash, and trust that you’ll make this idea happen.”

On my way home, I can’t help but keep wondering why. Why did they choose me? Why do I have $500 in my pocket that could so easily be given to charity? Why can’t I stop feeling guilty about it? Why, why, why…

Young (or, at least, not old), professional, well-educated, artistic… Dillard and her husband Matt Webber are prototypical members of the Awesome Portland board.

“We don’t have as much time for doing projects ourselves,” says Dillard, “and this allows us to address our love for our city.”

But before they began funding Awesome Portland grants, they sought one for their own awesome idea — Breakfast with Strangers, which blossomed into a website and book chronicling their five-month road trip from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine while sharing 50 breakfasts with 50 strangers.

Though they didn’t win the grant (they ultimately turned to Kickstarter for funding), they were impressed that something like Awesome Portland existed. Not many organizations would even consider supporting such an off-the-wall idea, let alone allow them to present it in person to board members.

A few years after their Breakfast with Strangers project, they became board members and — along with nine others — give $100 every month to support people who, like they once did, have off-the-wall ideas that have the potential to make their community a better place.

Dillard doesn’t have any grandiose notions about saving lives or changing the world, but she does believe that the projects Awesome Portland supports play a critical role in community building and adding fun into people’s lives — trustees included.

“With Awesome Portland, we belong to a small community with a social aspect, a civic aspect of trying to help make our town a better place, and a philanthropic aspect of supporting causes you’re interested in.”

What better place to launch Write Portland a Love Letter than Cathedral Park under the St. Johns Bridge? It’s an iconic Portland landmark, and better yet it’s in North Portland, the neighborhood where I grew up.

Seventy-seven green, yellow, and blue envelopes — laid out like the Portland flag — are taped to a black board, with a white stencil reading “Write Portland a Love Letter” on the top. In my profoundly biased opinion, it looks beautiful.

Within minutes, curious passersby walk up to the board, wondering what it is. When I tell them, they smile.

After an hour, the board is full of letters, and dozens of people have taken photos of the board to share with their friends on social media. Everyone says how cool and fun it is, and many of them spend several minutes with the board, reading the letters others have written.

A young man — no more than 20 — approaches the board with a young girl. He hides his letter from her, and puts it an envelope. She teases him about being so secretive, and finally he relents and allows her to read it.

Dear Portland,

Thank you for giving me the girl I love.

She starts crying, and they walk away hand-in-hand.

A man in his late 20s or early 30s initially says no when he found out what the board was about, since he couldn’t think of the right thing to say. But after walking his dog around the park, he returns to write this:

Dear Portland,

I love you despite you having so many other lovers that I can’t afford to love you much longer.

He looks sad as he turns to go, but doesn’t leave before taking a picture of the board.

A college student who looks the epitome of a Portland hipster with a flannel shirt, skinny jeans, stocking cap, and chunky black glasses, writes:

Dear Portland,

Thanks for welcoming me with open arms. I found a new home here.

She moved to Portland a few years ago and can’t imagine going back to her home town in California. “Too conservative, too close-minded, too many rich people.” She says she misses her family, but Portland is where she belongs. As a bisexual, she feels accepted here.

I collected dozens of letters like this, each with its own story. And I begin to understand the rush Michele of the Joy Team explained — the rush of making people smile, of brightening someone’s day, of making them feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves

I don’t think I saved anyone’s life. I don’t think traditional charities should be abandoned. I don’t think the tech tycoons supporting effective altruism should put all their resources into promoting happiness.

But I do think this matters. In its own unique, indistinct — yes, perhaps even frivolous — way, this matters.