In the search for happiness, popular culture is often divided when it comes to considering whether it is more important to do unto others or treat yourself. I’m confident that we can all relate to the positive feelings that come when we provide a gesture that is beneficial to someone other than ourselves. Likewise however, when we behave in a way that is beneficial to us personally, we undoubtedly feel the positive ramifications of this. What kind of behaviour is most influential for our happiness? A recent study published in the Emotion scientific journal directly examined this issue by comparing the well-being outcomes of prosocial versus self-orientated behaviour. Well-being in this instance is described as a state of optimum mental health and is characterised by positive psychological and social functioning.
The study explored well-being in a group of almost 500 participants over the course of 6 weeks. Participants were asked to complete an online programme which required them to either perform acts of kindness for others, for the wider humanity, or for themselves, on a daily basis. There was also a control condition that was asked to complete neutral tasks. Data measuring aspects of well-being was collected on an on-going basis throughout the duration of the study and analysis then revealed that prosocial actions led to greater increases in levels of well-being than self-focused and neutral behaviours.
These findings therefore appear to suggest that behaving in a way that is outwardly beneficial towards others, is actually better for our own well-being than behaving in more direct self-rewarding manner. The authors of the study led by Dr Katherine Nelson suggest that the reason for this is that behaving prosocially to help others, causes us to feel more gratifying and enduring positive emotions than when we simply treat ourselves. As well as this, behaving in this way increases can help to increase social engagement and build or strengthen the relationships of those around which can in turn influence our well-being. Though self-oriented behaviour can lead to improvements in well-being in the short-run, the authors suggested that the effects were not as long-standing as this type of behaviour may bring with it some negative consequences associated with hedonistic behaviours (for example, feelings of guilt).
Often times when we are feeling low or seeking to improve our happiness we automatically behave in ways that provide instant but short-lived improvements to our well-being, such as by buying a new pair of shoes or treating ourselves to food from our favourite restaurant. Such behaviours are of course often merited and can give us the boost that we need to carry on with our day. However the next time that you feel the need to treat yourself consider if there is anything that you can do for someone else. This might just give you a better kick than you expect.
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.