Research Summaries:Do unto others or treat yourself? The effects of prosocial and self-focused behavior on psychological flourishing
Trick or Treat? Which would you choose? Perhaps, most of you, who celebrate Halloween, would prefer giving treats to the children. And we feel happy about that too! Intuitively we know that treating/ helping others, makes us even more happier than it makes the helped person.
Today’s research summary is from the journal emotion, and based on this paper by Lyubomirsky et al.
- There is a rich literature out there that shows that helping others makes us feel happier. However, another rich literature suggests that self-focused things like savoring also make us happy. There is paucity of research contrasting the self-focused way towards happiness with more other-directed routes. The only exception is contrasting self-focused spending with other-directed spending, about which the literature suggests that other-directed spending is more powerful.
- It is well-established that happiness, or psychological flourishing, is multi-dimensional. It consists of emotional well being (life satisfaction and greater positive emotions than negative emotions), psychological well being ( things like self-acceptance, personal growth, environmental mastery, autonomy etc) and social functioning ( social acceptance, social contribution etc). Mental health continuum – short form, was used to measure psychological flourishing in this study.
- Pro-social behaviors, as per the authors’ conceptualization, not only include everyday acts of kindness like helping an old person cross the street, but also include larger efforts to make the world a better place by say volunteering at a local old age home. It was hypothesized that both sorts of acts would lead to happiness.
- Pro-social behaviors were activated in the study participants using random acts of kindness paradigm. The experimental subjects were instructed to perform 3 acts of kindness that were either acts of kindness towards others or towards world/ humanity at large. This was contrasted with a neutral condition as well as a self-focused condition in which the acts of kindness were to be performed for oneself. The study ran for 6 weeks.
- The results indicated that pro-social behaviors led to significantly greater happiness than self-focused behaviors. The effect was mediated by increases in positive emotions over the course of the study for those who performed pro-social random acts of kindness.
- A surprising result was that performing acts of kindness for oneself did not lead to long term benefits in happiness.
The authors conclude the paper with the following recommendation:
People who are striving to improve their own happiness may be tempted to treat themselves to a spa day, a shopping trip, or a sumptuous dessert. The results of the current study suggest, however, that when happiness seekers are tempted to treat themselves, they might be more successful if they opt to treat someone else instead.
If you are intrigued by the study and would like to know more, the full text can be found here [pdf].
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- The Four Kinds of Happiness
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