A study lasting 7 days looked at how engaging in prosocial behavior affected people’s psychological well-being. It found that participants felt happy when they helped others, but this was true only when they chose to help freely, the person they helped wasn’t responsible for their problem, the person they helped showed gratitude, the help improved the situation, and they didn’t expect to blame themselves if they didn’t help. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
People engage in different activities in pursuit of happiness. Some believe that their dream job will make them happy, others believe that earning lots of money will achieve this, while some try to achieve happiness through exercise or meditation. Generally, people tend to expect much more happiness from individual positive events than these events actually bring.
Many people focus on their own needs and feelings when they want to feel good, but studies indicate that acting kindly towards others can also lead to a great sense of satisfaction. An increasing number of studies indicate that being kind and helpful to others can improve the well-being of the helper. However, not all situations of helping others are the same – some will benefit the well-being of the helper more than others.
Study author Jana S. Kesenheimer and her colleagues wanted to explore the factors that affect how much the act of helping benefits the well-being of the helper. They conducted a 7-day diary study with 363 participants, most of whom were university students.
The study was carried out through a series of online surveys. The whole procedure was explained to participants in the first survey. This survey took around 15 minutes to complete. After this, for the next seven days, participants received an email at 7 p.m. containing a link to the survey for that day.
Each day, the survey started by asking the participant “How many times have you engaged in a prosocial act today that consisted of helping or doing something good for someone else? Please think carefully and review your day in your mind”. This was followed by examples of prosocial acts. These included donating, giving someone something, giving another person joy, consideration, and comforting or supporting someone.
If the participant confirmed that he/she acted prosocially, the survey asked them to describe the act in details. The survey then presented a list of characteristics of that prosocial act and the situation surrounding it and participants rated how much each of those characteristics corresponded to the act they performed. Finally, participants reported their well-being on that day by using an 11-point scale ranging from very bad to very good.
The results showed that participants reported better well-being when they performed more prosocial acts. This was the case both on the daily level and when looking at averages for the whole period. The group that acted more prosocially in terms of the number of prosocial acts per day reported better average well-being compared to group that did not report prosocial acts for the period of the study.
Detailed analysis identified autonomy, gratitude, responsibility, improvement and self-blame as factors with significant positive effects on well-being and on the relationship between prosocial acts and well-being. Prosocial acts were associated with well-being in situations when the participant could freely decide whether to help/act prosocially or not, but not when he/she did not have that choice. Similarly, prosocial acts resulted in better well-being when the person receiving help was not responsible for the situation (due to which help was needed), when the action resulted in substantial improvement of the situation, when the recipient of help showed high levels of gratitude, and when the expected self-blame (for not helping) was low i.e., when the participant would not blame him/herself for not helping if he/she decided so.
“The correlational results of this dairy study replicated the positive effects of prosocial behavior on well‐being and showed under which circumstances the effect is particularly pronounced,” the researchers concluded. “A helper feels particularly good when their autonomy is high, the person in need is grateful and irresponsible for the plight, when the situation improves significantly as a result of the help, and when the expected self‐blame (if not‐helping) is low.”
“Importantly, in other words, helping does not improve well‐being when autonomy is low, the person in need is not grateful and/or responsible for their need, or when helping is ineffective. In addition, helping to avoid self‐blame inhibits the positive effect on well‐being. Helping helps the helper, but only under the right set of circumstances.”
The study sheds light on the link between prosocial behavior and well-being. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, all participants were from German-speaking countries. Results in other countries and cultures might not be the same. Additionally, the study design does not allow for any cause-and-effect conclusions to be derived and the assessment of well-being was based on just a single item.
The paper “When do I feel good when I am nice? A diary study about the relationship between prosocial behavior and well‐being” was authored by Jana S. Kesenheimer, Andreas Kastenmüller, Lea‐Sophie Kinkel, Beril Fidan, and Tobias Greitemeyer.