Let’s say you find someone who just did something generous and put them on the spot by interviewing them. You ask them, “Why did you do that generous thing?”
They might say “because it was the right thing to do” or “because I wanted to give back.” What it really comes down to, though, is that people help other people because it feels good.
And it turns out that the good feeling you get from helping other people can have a real effect on your overall psychological well-being, happiness and health.
A study just published in Emotion has added evidence to the increasingly popular idea that helping other people is good for you.
The research followed 473 people over the course of 6 weeks. Each of the people were instructed to perform either acts of kindness directed at other people or society in general, self-focused “acts of kindness” aimed at raising their own mood, or random acts aimed at no one in particular.
The group assigned to undertake self-oriented acts didn’t fare any better or worse than the group performing neutral acts. However, the group that set out to help others experienced more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions than the other two groups.
The acts of generosity tended to boost people’s sense of well-being regardless of whether they were directed at individuals or at society in general. This finding led the study’s authors to conclude:
People striving for happiness may be tempted to treat themselves. Our results, however, suggest that they may be more successful if they opt to treat someone else instead.
Helping other people appears to be a human impulse that is both universal and very deeply ingrained. Research published last year found that 5-year-old children in a remote Vanuatuan village were happier giving away candy than receiving it and were likewise happier giving away their own candy than candy belonging to the researchers.
In fact, the desire to help other people is so fundamental that doing so may actually be physically healthy. Older adults tend to have lower blood pressure the more money they spend on other people. Moreover, instructing older adults to spend more money on other people actually lowers their blood pressure over the course of three weeks by about the same amount as medication or exercise.
The theory that helping others is one of the best ways of helping yourself is leading to exciting new interventions to improve people’s health and psychological well-being. For example, an Israeli program called Sahi encourages at-risk teenagers to commit anonymous acts of kindness in their neighborhoods. Teens participating in the program report feeling more independent, confident, empathetic and optimistic.
But the best thing about this sort of intervention is that there are pretty much an unlimited number of ways you can implement it in your own life. So if you want to do something nice for yourself, go do something nice for someone else!