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More Evidence That Helping Others Is a Catalyst for Well-Being

Something science and spirituality can agree on.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Wolfram Burner/Flickr)

The point has been made by everyone from neuroscientists to foul-mouthed singing puppets: If you really want to be happy, set aside your own desires and help others. But do we really believe it, and do we, in fact, behave accordingly?

If your answer is a sheepish “no,” you might want to consider the results of a newly published study. It followed a diverse group of people for six weeks as they either focused on themselves, or performed regular works of kindness and charity.

Unlike their self-centered counterparts, those who gave of their time felt higher levels of positive emotions through the course of the study. What’s more, their “psychological flourishing” remained heightened for at least two weeks following its completion.

“People striving for happiness may be tempted to treat themselves,” writes a research team led by psychologist S. Katherine Nelson of Sewanee: The University of the South. “Our results, however, suggest that they may be more successful if they opt to treat someone else instead.”

The study, published in the journal Emotion, featured 472 participants (60 percent female) recruited from three different sources: a community sample; students at a California university; and online, via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Participants were given cash payments (and, for the students, course credits).

“As people do nice things for others, they may feel greater joy, contentment, and love, which in turn promote greater overall well-being.”

Participants received a specific set of instructions once a week for four consecutive weeks. On each occasion, they were instructed to perform three actions the following day: “Perform three nice things for others,” such as visiting a sick acquaintance; “Perform three nice things to improve the world,” such as picking up litter, or donating used clothes to a charity; and “Perform three acts of kindness for yourself,” such as having a favorite meal, or spending time on a favorite hobby; or simply “Keep track of your activities.”

At the beginning and end of the four-week period, and again two weeks later, all filled out a survey designed to measure their psychological, emotional, and social well-being. Questions included “How often did you feel happy over the last week?” and “How often did you feel that you belonged to a community/social group?”

Participants also filled out a separate, weekly survey, noting the extent to which they experienced various emotions — positive and negative — over the previous seven days.

The key result: “The two types of pro-social behavior led to greater increases in psychological flourishing than did the self-focused and neutral behavior.”

This is at least partly explained by the fact that helping others led to increases in positive emotions, while doing things for oneself did not. The researchers speculate this is because the pleasures provided by self-oriented behaviors are either short-lived and/or partially negated by guilt. (In the case of these participants, the self-treats also tended to be solitary, which meant they did not experience the pleasure of interacting with others.)

When participants checked in two weeks after the completion of their tasks, researchers found the elevated positive emotions of those who did good deeds had dipped a bit. Importantly, however, these participants “demonstrated a continued rise in psychological flourishing” at that point, even though they were no longer being prompted to perform in altruistic ways.

“One possibility is that the positive emotions felt during the course of the study triggered an upward spiral of greater well-being,” the researchers write. “As people do nice things for others, they may feel greater joy, contentment, and love, which in turn promote greater overall well-being and improve (their) social relationships.”

The effects of helping others were significant, but not gigantic; as Nelson and her colleagues note, well-being is influenced by many factors. But as they also point out, the good deeds that served as a catalyst for increased contentment only required a weekly expenditure of around 30 minutes to an hour. That’s a tiny amount of time for a very real benefit.

So, if your life is disappointing at the moment, you could go the self-indulgent route and engage in some glorious gluttony. Or you could spend an hour or two at a food bank, helping to ensure that others can enjoy at least a meager meal.

The first option may be more enjoyable in the moment, but if you’ve chosen the second, you’ll feel better about yourself the next day. And isn’t feeling good the goal?