If you’re having a bad day, what is the best way to boost your mood? Will you be more likely to feel better if you do something to treat yourself, or will you feel better if you focus on doing something nice for others? Psychologists have actually researched this question, and have come up with some interesting results.
In a study published recently in the research journal Emotion, 473 volunteers were separated into four groups, and each group was instructed to complete different tasks over a six-week period. One group was asked to perform acts of kindness to “improve the world”, such as picking up litter. The second group performed acts of kindness for specific other people. The third group performed acts of kindness for themselves, such as exercising more or taking a day off from work. The fourth group was instructed to do nothing out of the ordinary. Before and after the six weeks, all participants filled out questionnaires to assess their psychological, emotional, and social well-being. They also self-reported their positive and negative emotions weekly throughout the study.
What the researchers found was that subjects who performed acts of kindness, whether those acts were for the world or for specific people, were more likely to report feeling happy or experience an improvement in mood than either those who treated themselves or those who did nothing different. Those assigned to treat themselves reported no improvement in their sense of well-being, and no increase in positive emotions.
These findings aren’t unique There is a growing body of evidence which shows that generosity and kindness toward others is positively correlated with both health and well-being. To give just a few examples:
In a 2006 study researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Tennessee, people who provided social support to others had lower blood pressure than participants who didn’t, suggesting a direct physiological benefit to those who give of themselves. Research published in 2013 shows that senior who volunteer, whether it be serving at a community soup kitchen or visiting nursing homes, reduce their early mortality rate by 22 percent compared to those who don’t actively give back. And a fifty-year longitudinal study showed that people who are giving during their high school years have better physical and mental health throughout their lives than those who aren’t. Other studies have shown that helping others has measurable health benefits to those with chronic illness, including HIV, multiple sclerosis, and heart problems.
Giving to others has also long been known to be helpful in recovery from addictions. A cornerstone of all twelve step programs involves helping others through sponsorships, social support, and bringing meetings to hospitals and institutions. The experience of countless people in recovery shows that addicts and alcoholics increase the likelihood of their own success by being empathic, compassionate and generous toward others in recovery.
Research is also shedding light on the biochemistry of these findings. It appears that performing acts of kindness triggers the release of dopamine – a “feel good” hormone. Acts of kindness also appear to be linked to increases in oxytocin, a hormone (released during sex and breast feeding) that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria, and connection to others.
Psychology is re-discovering what other civilizations and all of the world’s spiritual traditions have known for thousands of years – that we aren’t separate islands, like lizards in a desert, but social animals – hardwired for empathy, compassion, and connections with other people. Research on happiness consistently shows that the most important factors in human well-being are intimate and enduring relationships with others, and a sense of belonging to a community. But in our “me-oriented” culture, which extols personal fulfillment above virtually everything else; and which celebrates those who accumulate money, fame and power as the “winners” (and this must partly explain why the grotesque candidacy of Donald Trump has captured the imagination of so many millions of American), it is all too easy to forget this basic truth about human nature. One consequence of our alienation from our authentic needs is the restless dissatisfaction that now seems ubiquitous in our culture: an estimated one tenth of the population for instance, are currently taking anti-depressants. Maybe one of the reasons for our unhappiness is just that too many of us have forgotten how much we need to care for one another.