New research on humans, links between happiness and altruism.
Let’s say you have $10 that you can spend either to benefit someone else or to benefit yourself. What course of action do you think will make you happier? A growing number of psychological research shows that, surprisingly, people are happier when they act for the benefit of others than when they act for the benefit of themselves.
For example, in one of the first studies to investigate this link, participants rated their level of happiness in the morning and were then awarded $5 or $20. One group of participants was assigned a personal spending status, in which they were instructed to either pay a bill, or a gift for themselves. The other group was assigned a positive social spending status, in which they were instructed to spend the money to buy a gift for someone else or for a charity. When all participants completed the task and reported being happy again at 5 p.m., the researchers found that those in the second group were happier — and it didn’t matter whether they earned $5 or $20.
This has been repeated many times by researchers, and is learning more about the conditions in which a person remains with the condition. For example, spending on others rather than yourself seems to make a bigger difference to your happiness when you know that spending makes a positive difference to the recipient. Furthermore, 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 boost your happiness more than acts of kindness to yourself. In fact, helping others, not yourself, appears to be associated with greater happiness.
An important question that has received less attention from researchers is why helping others enhances your happiness more than benefiting yourself. A study was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology on this question. The researchers found evidence for a fairly simple explanation. The primary value involved in benefiting others, which is of no benefit to yourself, is that it builds our human connections with others.
According to several prominent psychological theories, our basic needs include the need to build such human connections. Of course, we also have other deep needs, such as demonstrating our competence, and taking care of our own affairs independently. But when it comes to comparing actions that benefit us with actions that benefit others, the main factor that makes the difference is that those that benefit others uniquely improve our experience of human connection.
The research authors tested this hypothesis in several ways. In one study, they had participants remember a time when they tried to boost their own happiness and a time when they tried to boost someone else’s happiness. In another study, they randomly directed participants to try to make themselves happy, to try to make someone else happy, or to try to socialize with others. In a third study, they presented participants with coins and gave them a choice between putting the coins in their parking meters or putting the coins in other people’s parking meters, and leaving the others with a note saying that they put money for their cars. In all three cases, behavior focused on making others happier was associated with greater happiness for participants, the reason being that in all three cases, participants remembered that there was a greater attachment to other people as a result of that behavior.
This finding is significant, as the research also reveals that people sometimes tend to underestimate the importance of human connections with others.
We tend to mistakenly believe that spending little money and time on ourselves will make us happier than spending it on others. We misjudge the impact of simple acts of kindness on others and ourselves. We think that talking nice to a stranger doesn’t matter – but it does. Thus, it appears to be an important means of enhancing our happiness that has been withheld from us.
Hopefully, by learning about these scientific researches and practical experience, we can reconsider the value we place in building our relationships with others – even if in very simple ways. By giving these human connections what they deserve, we have enhanced our happiness and their.