Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Doing Good Is Selfish

Research shows that if you want to feel good, help someone else.

Key points

  • Research shows the practice of generosity can increase one’s lifespan.
  • Generosity promotes social connection and improves relationships.
  • Focusing on giving, rather than receiving, creates a more outward orientation toward the world.
Source: melis/Shutterstock

The Dalai Lama famously said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

The same is certainly true for generosity.

Generosity—the quality of being kind and understanding, the willingness to give to others things that have value—is often defined as an act of selflessness. However, studies have now shown that generosity can actually—selfishly—be in your best interest. Practicing generosity is a mental health principle that could be the key to leading a happy and healthy life.

Year after year, new studies highlight the benefits of generosity for both our physical and mental health. Not only does generosity reduce stress, support one’s physical health, enhance one’s sense of purpose, and fight depression, but it has also been shown to increase one’s lifespan.

If a longer, less stressful, and more meaningful life is not enough to inspire you to boost your practice of generosity, consider that generosity also promotes social connection and improves relationships. According to Jason Marsh and Jill Suttie of the Greater Good Science Center, “When we give to others, we don’t only make them feel closer to us; we also feel closer to them.” This is because being generous and kind encourages us to perceive others in a more positive light as well as fosters a sense of community and a feeling of interconnectedness.

But generosity also makes us feel better about ourselves. It's a natural confidence builder and a repellant of self-hatred. By focusing on what we are giving, rather than what we are receiving, we create a more outward orientation toward the world, shifting our focus away from ourselves. While maintaining a healthy level of self-awareness and sensitivity to oneself is important, too often when we narrow in on ourselves we do so with a negative lens. We listen to the “critical inner voice” in our heads, which scrutinizes our every move and barrages us with negative thoughts, toward ourselves and others. These thoughts undermine our confidence and can even lead to self-sabotage. Being generous distracts us from the critical inner voice’s stream of nasty thoughts—and creates a strong argument against it. When we see someone else benefiting from our kind actions, for example, it's hard for the inner voice to argue that we are worthless.

Four Steps to Fully Practicing Generosity

  1. Give something that is sensitive to the other person. Generosity is most effective when the gift you offer is sensitive. Think about what the other person wants or needs. It’s not always about material things; it’s about being giving of yourself. Sometimes just being present and available to a loved one who is having a hard time is the greatest gift you could possibly give.
  2. Accept appreciation. It is important to be open to the people who express appreciation toward you. Generosity is a two-way street, and allowing someone to express their gratitude is an important aspect of generosity—it's part of what makes you feel closer to them. As psychology researchers at the University of North Carolina discovered, “The emotion of gratitude uniquely functions to build a high-quality relationship between a grateful person and the target of his or her gratitude—that is, the person who performed a kind action.” So it is important to not brush off a "thank you" with comments like "It was nothing."
  3. Accept the generosity of others. Some people have a much easier time giving than receiving. However, it is important to let others do things for you. I call this the generosity of acceptance. Being pseudo-independent or self-denying robs your loved ones of the opportunity to feel the joy of giving themselves. (Accepting the generosity of others may make you uncomfortable if you felt unlovable or unworthy in your early life. Generosity is often an act of love, and, though it may seem counterintuitive, many people respond negatively to being loved.)
  4. Show appreciation. Remember that gratitude is an important part of the equation. Show your appreciation for generosity directed toward you, even if you feel shy or uncomfortable. Resist the temptation to say, "This is too much," or "You shouldn’t have." Just say, "Thank you." Better yet, let the person know what their generosity meant to you.

Generosity is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Each day life presents us with hundreds of opportunities to be generous; by making a lifestyle of it, we can do ourselves and others a world of good.

More from Lisa Firestone Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today