Why Helping Others Is More Rewarding Than Helping Yourself
Suppose you’re given $10 that you can spend either to benefit someone else or to benefit yourself. Which course of action do you think would make you happier? A growing body of psychological research shows that, surprisingly, people are happier when they act to benefit others than when they act to benefit themselves.
For instance, in one of the earliest studies to investigate this link, participants rated their level of happiness in the morning and were then given either $5 or $20. One group of participants was assigned to the personal spending condition, being instructed to either pay for a bill, an expense, or a gift for themselves. The other group was assigned to the prosocial spending condition, being instructed to spend the funds to purchase a gift for someone else or to benefit charity. When all participants completed the task and reported on their happiness again at 5pm, researchers found that those in the prosocial spending condition were significantly happier — and it didn’t matter whether they’d received $5 or $20.
This effect has now been replicated many times by researchers, and more has been learned about the conditions under which it continues to hold. For example, spending on others rather than on yourself appears to make more of a difference to your happiness when you know that the spending makes a positive difference for the recipient. Moreover, it can make a difference for you whether or not you have a personal relationship with the recipient. And it’s not just about spending money: non-financial acts of kindness done to benefit others also promote your happiness more than acts of kindness done to yourself. Indeed, it appears to be a human universal that helping others, rather than yourself, is associated with greater happiness.
An important question that has received less attention from researchers is just why benefiting others would promote your own happiness more than benefiting yourself does. A study published just recently in the Journal of Positive Psychology is devoted to this question. Researchers found evidence for a fairly simple explanation. The key value involved in benefiting others, but not benefiting oneself, is that it…