The secret to happiness may lie in doing things to make other people happy, rather than ourselves, according to a series of five studies published in the Journal of Positive Psychology. The findings suggest that doing things for others enhances well-being by fulfilling a psychological need for connection with others — even if that person is a stranger.
All of us strive toward that coveted state of happiness. In Western culture, this is often seen as a self-focused mission involving the egoistic pursuit of personal goals. But a growing body of research suggests a more fruitful approach to happiness. It seems that, ironically, happiness comes from seeking joy for others rather than ourselves.
Among this research is a series of five studies launched by Liudmila Titova and Kennon M. Sheldon. Throughout these studies, which were mainly conducted among university students in the Mid-Western United States, the researchers tested whether participants would report a greater boost in well-being after trying to make another person happy versus trying to make themselves happy.
An initial study asked students to recall a time when they did something to make someone else happy, and a time when they did something to make themselves happy. When asked how they had felt about each experience, students recalled feeling greater well-being during the other-directed activity compared to the self-directed one.
A second study further suggested that the social interaction involved in helping another person was not driving the effect of the other-focused activity. During an experiment, students who were asked to do something to make another person happy later reported greater well-being than those who were asked to simply socialize or to do something to make themselves happy.
A “spillover” effect also did not appear to be responsible for the effect. In another experiment, the researchers found that participants’ well-being was not significantly linked to the well-being of the person they were trying to make happy. This suggests that doing something for someone else was not improving participants’ well-being through a spillover of the other person’s happiness. Instead, the extent that participants believed they were making the person happy was positively tied to their own well-being, suggesting that it was the perception that they made someone happy that made them feel good.
In a fourth study, the researchers wondered whether people would feel better when they tried to make someone else happy or when someone else tried to make them happy. They found that students recalled feeling greater well-being during a time when they tried to make someone else happy versus a time when someone else tried to make them happy.
A final experiment revealed that this boost in well-being occurs even when the person being helped is a total stranger. Passersby on the street were given two quarters and randomly assigned to one of four conditions. They were instructed to either keep the change as a reward for the survey, to put the change in their own parking meters, to put the change in a stranger’s meter, or to put the change in a stranger’s meter along with a note explaining what they did. It was found that participants reported the highest well-being when they put the money in the stranger’s meter, and the effect was slightly weaker when they fed the stranger’s meter without a note.
Notably, the studies pointed to a psychological mechanism for why benevolent behavior increases happiness. It was found that the basic psychological need for relatedness — the need to feel connected to others — mediated the effect of the other-focused activity in all five studies. In other words, feeling a greater connection to others explained why doing something for another person tended to leave participants happier than doing something for themselves.
Titova and Sheldon note a few limitations to their research. For example, in the third study, they were unable to clearly test whether the participant’s kind behavior actually improved the target’s well-being. “It would be beneficial to examine the effect in a full actor-partner model, where both participants have a chance to do something to improve mood and happiness of one another,” the study authors suggest. Additionally, they say it would be interesting for future studies to examine the possible long-term effects of trying to make others happy, exploring how it measures up as “an overall life-strategy.”
The study, “Happiness comes from trying to make others feel good, rather than oneself”, was authored by Liudmila Titova and Kennon M. Sheldon.