Helping Yourself By Helping Others

We’re spending the month of September exploring relationships and happiness.

We started by learning about the importance of relationships generally to our happiness before diving into specific relationships with spouses and kids.

Now we’re going to zoom back out and look at broader concepts.

Today, we’ll be exploring the extraordinary happiness benefits of doing things for other people.

Correlation vs. Causation

Helping others makes us happy.

This is something that has been seen as common knowledge for a long time. However, proving causation was difficult.

Could we actually say that helping people made us happy? Or was it just that happiness made people more likely to help others?

Causation questions plagued happiness research for years. Until happiness interventions.

Happiness Interventions

In a happiness intervention researchers measure the happiness of participants, have them perform tasks in an experiment, and then continue to measure their happiness as time passes. This allows researchers to follow the changes in happiness of specific people rather than trying to glean causation from survey data.

In one such experiment, psychologists had participants perform, and take note of, five acts of kindness every week over a six week period. The acts could be anything that the participant wanted, whether visiting a nursing home, feeding a stranger’s parking meter, giving blood, or buying someone a “just because” gift.

By the end of the six weeks, the participants were significantly happier than they had been at the beginning of the experiment.

Pretty simple, but still proof that helping other people makes us happier.

Others Before Self

It turns out that doing things for others makes us even happier than doing them for ourselves.

In one study researchers gave some participants $5 and others $20. They told some to spend the money on themselves and some to spend it on someone else.

The people that spent the money on others were happier at the end of the day.

The people that spent it on themselves were not.

The researchers also found that the dollar value didn’t matter. The people that spent $5 and the people that spent $20 both got the same happiness boost from doing something nice for someone else.

The act of helping someone else was more important than the value of the gift.

Give Away Your Money

This rationale applies to much large dollar values as well.

One study looked at the happiness of people before and after they received large bonuses. The people who spent their bonus on themselves, paid their bills, paid down debt, or invested did not see any increase in happiness.

The people that spent it on others did.

Again, the dollar value didn’t matter. Donating 50% of a $10,000 bonus to a worthy charity was just as effective as donating 50% of a $1,000 bonus. The important thing is helping others.

Toddler Generosity

This appears to be a preference that we’re born with rather than something we develop. We can see this in a study involving toddlers, snacks, and puppets.

Researchers gave a group of two-year olds eight treats each (either Goldfish or Teddy Grahams) and introduced them to a monkey puppet who they were told loves the same treat as they did.

The kids were given an extra treat specifically for the purpose of feeding the puppet and then were encouraged to give more from their own stash.

The kids showed more happiness in giving the treats to the puppet than from eating them themselves. On top of that, they were happier giving from their own stash than they were giving away the researcher’s treat.

From a young age we are happier when we feel that we are truly helping other people.

Help. Other. People.

If you want to lead a happier life, there is a clear path to take: help other people.

You don’t need to start with anything drastic and life-changing. You can start by holding a few doors and paying the toll for the car behind you. Buy a friend coffee or send someone flowers.

Just the act of doing something nice for someone else with lift your mood.

And who knows? Once you start, maybe you’ll find yourself in a virtuous cycle where you help others which makes you happier which makes you help more which makes you happier which makes you help more.

A handful of people with a chain reaction like that could make the world a much nicer place.

In addition to giving themselves a happier life, of course.

Join the Conversation!

Have you felt happiness boosts from helping others? What are your go-to good deeds? Do you have any methods for making sure you help more? Let us know in the comments!

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