Happiness isn’t just feeling good, it’s also doing good

Happiness isn’t just feeling good, it’s also doing good

If happiness stems atleast in part from helping others, then this article is very relevant for any of us seeking more positive emotions…

Random Acts of Kindness
Every good positive psychologist knows that Random Acts of Kindness are linked to well-being. Recently I was looking for Positive Psychology research linking well-being and helping generally. One of the most frequently quoted empirical studies by Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues tells us that doing a variety of Random Acts of Kindness, which might be simple things such as holding the door open for a stranger, or helping someone carry groceries to the car, can increase well-being, particularly if you do them in concentrated bursts (research participants did 5 Random Acts of Kindness a day once a week for 6 weeks). The intervention was thought to impact well-being by increasing self-regard, creating positive social interactions, and increasing charitable feelings towards others. In other words, helping by performing Random Acts of Kindness improves the quality of people_ã_s relationships.

A Pseudo-Experiment
During my MAPP studies at the University of East London, a small group in my class decided to do our own pseudo-experiment with Random Acts of Kindness. One Saturday evening we set about distributing bottles of Budweiser which were left over from our faculty summer party to other students _ã_ some that we passed on the way back to our residence hall, some waiting at the campus bus-stop for a ride into town, some diligently doing their washing in the campus launderette. Of course we couldn_ã_t measure the effect scientifically, but we definitely felt good giving our stuff away, and judging by the smiles, amusement, and gratitude, the people given bottles of Budweiser for free also felt good. For some it looked like the very first time they_ã_d been given something for nothing. We had to assure them it wasn_ã_t a trick and they weren_ã_t on Candid Camera.

Recent Research on Helping and Motivation
Netta Weinstein and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester have recently published research on the impact of doing things for others. Ryan_ã_s name is most frequently linked with Self-Determination Theory (SDT) that links intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to the three basic psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness and competence. There_ã_s a clue here to the nature of their experiments and their ultimate conclusions.

Their research looked at the link between well-being and autonomous help on the one hand versus controlled help on the other hand. With autonomous help, we freely give because we want to help. With controlled help, we_ã_re coerced into giving, perhaps because we feel guilty, because we_ã_re told to help, or because we get some reward for helping.

Four different studies were carried out, including a daily diary study of helping behaviors and well-being and experiments in which people were randomly given the opportunity to help their study partner complete a test and win a prize which they themselves were precluded from winning.

What is perhaps surprising is that helping others, per se, did not generally relate to well-being as measured by subjective well-being, vitality, or self-esteem. People who engaged in more helpful behaviors across the 2 weeks were not better off, nor were people better off on days when they helped someone compared to days when they did not. Yet autonomous help had a consistent and substantial impact on well-being.

These studies suggest that it may not be the helping act itself that is responsible for increasing the well-being of the helper, but rather the specific motivational quality of the act. This is an important clarification of the general message that helping is good for your well-being.

What about the Well-being of People who Received Help?

Did well-being increase for the people being helped? The studies demonstrated that recipients of autonomous help experienced higher well-being in terms of positive affect, vitality, and self-esteem, whereas recipients of controlled help didn_ã_t get any well-being benefits or even reported lower well-being than those who didn_ã_t receive any help at all! Recipients of autonomous help also thought that their helpers made more effort, and they felt closer to them.

It_ã_s worth pointing out that in the study, the people who received help weren_ã_t told their helper_ã_s motivation. Weinstein and Ryan suggest that therefore their responses were generated entirely as a result of the quality of the interpersonal experience, that receiving autonomous help makes you feel more valued, compared to receiving help that the helper feels compelled to give. I_ã_m not so sure about this explanation. Personally I think it_ã_s quite likely that at least some of the people could instinctively detect the motivation of the helper.

Nevertheless, this research does raise some interesting questions about the impact of your helping on the well-being of other people, particularly when having no choice as to whether you help or not seems to result in their well-being being lower than if you didn_ã_t help them in the first place. So perhaps we all need to think twice before we do things for others halfheartedly or begrudgingly. What Weinstein and Ryan_ã_s research seems to suggest is either to help wholeheartedly, or not at all.

Read the original version of this happiness article on Positive Psychology News Daily – just click here