How Aspiring to Help Others Keeps Us Happy and Healthy

Aspiring for community relationships based on giving back promotes well-being.

Posted Dec 25, 2020

"God's wisdom teaches me: When I help others, I'm really helping myself. And if we all could spread a little sunshine, all could lend a helping hand. We'd all be a little closer to the promised land." —"Spread a Little Sunshine" sung by Fastrada in Pippin (music & lyrics by Stephen Schwartz)

What's your gut reaction to Fastrada professing that "when I help others, I'm really helping myself" in this Pippin song? Does aspiring to help others within your community seem unethical or cunning if your primary motivation for lending a hand is ultimately to help yourself?

Musée du Louvre/Public Domain
Belisarius Begging for Alms (1784) painting by Jacques-Louis David from the Louvre Museum collection.
Source: Musée du Louvre/Public Domain

As a kid growing up in the 1970s, my family went to see Pippin on Broadway; we also had an 8-track of the original cast recording in the car and listened to this soundtrack nonstop. At the time, as someone who went to church on Sundays and aspired to be a genuine "do-gooder," hearing Fastrada sing about 'helping others to help herself' seemed kind of selfish and didn't align with my moral compass.

But over the years, singing along to "Spread a Little Sunshine" prompted the realization that altruistic behaviors aren't always selfless.

Inevitably, our willingness to help others is going to be motivated by varying degrees of self-interest. And I realize now that embracing the "give-to-get" aspects of altruism doesn't negate the prosocial, win-win benefits of helping others. (See "The Evolutionary Biology of Altruism.")

Nonetheless, I've never felt 100% comfortable admitting that my altruistic motivations are often driven by the warm glow and positive feelings I get from giving to others. So-called "random acts of kindness"—like putting twenty bucks in the tip cup after I get a to-go order from my favorite, family-owned burrito place—are often token gestures that make the giver and receiver both feel good.

Anecdotally, based on life experience, I know that helping others in my community is usually self-serving to a degree. And that's OK. For example, my habit of leaving big tips at local restaurants isn't purely motivated by a desire to help the community-based front line workers on the receiving end; tipping people in the service industry generously makes me feel better on multiple levels.

Now, after reading about a new study (Bradshaw et al., 2020) published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that investigated how "the social breadth of aspiration profiles predicts well-being," I'm planning to give back more substantially in 2021. Maybe learning more about this study will inspire you to do the same.

The latest study by first author Emma Bradshaw of Australian Catholic University (ACU) and colleagues at the University of Rochester found that of three different personality profiles, those who aspired for community relationships more than interpersonal relationships "reliably experienced the highest well-being." These are the three profiles the researchers identified and studied:

  • Disengaged from relationships and health (Profile 1)
  • Aspiring for interpersonal relationships more than community relationships (Profile 2)
  • Aspiring for community relationships more than interpersonal relationships (Profile 3)

"If you want to make a New Year's resolution that really makes you happy, think about the ways in which you can contribute to the world," senior author Richard Ryan, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Rochester and the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at ACU said in a news release. "The research shows it's not just good for the world but also really good for you."

According to Ryan, the act of willingly helping others satisfies the three core tenets of his self-determination theory (SDT) of human motivation and personality:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Competence
  3. Relatedness

Within the SDT framework, autonomy involves engaging in activities with "personal value" that evoke a feeling of "true volition." Competence involves "feeling effective and having a sense of accomplishment." Relatedness means working together with others and feeling a sense of connectedness.

"Think of how you can help," Ryan suggests. "There's a lot of distress out there: If we can set goals that aim to help others, those kinds of goals will, in turn, also add to our own well-being."

"Belisarius Begging for Alms" Musée du Louvre, public domain (Atlas database: entry 18877)


Emma L. Bradshaw, Baljinder K. Sahdra, Joseph Ciarrochi, Philip D. Parker, Tamás Martos, Richard M. Ryan. "A Configural Approach To Aspirations: The Social Breadth of Aspiration Profiles Predicts Well-Being Over and Above the Intrinsic and Extrinsic Aspirations That Comprise the Profiles." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (First published online: December 03, 2020) DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000374