Katherine Nelson-Coffey, Ph.D.

Living Life Well

Treat Yourself: Does It Really Make You Happy?

New research explores its psychological effects.

Posted Sep 15, 2016

Nina Buday/Shutterstock
Source: Nina Buday/Shutterstock

Treat yourself. The premise for a funny episode of Parks and Recreation seems to have taken our culture by storm. Feeling stressed after a long day of work? Treat yourself to a bubble bath. Feeling blue? Treat yourself to a decadent dessert. Feeling frustrated after an argument with a friend? Skip your workout and treat yourself to an extra scoop of ice cream.

The message is clear: If you want to feel happy, focus on your own wishes and desires.

Yet this is not the advice that many of us grew up hearing. Indeed, most of the world’s religions (and grandmothers) have long suggested that people should focus on others first and themselves second. Psychologists refer to behavior intended to benefit others as prosocial behavior. Many studies show that when people focus prosocially on others—buying a friend a cup of coffee, picking up an extra chore for a family member, or helping a neighbor with an errand—their own happiness increases. 

But how does prosocial behavior compare to treating oneself? And does treating oneself really make people feel happy?

In a recent study published in the journal Emotion, my colleagues and I put this question to the test.

The Study

Participants were divided into four groups and given instructions each week for four weeks:

  • One group was instructed to perform acts of kindness for themselves, such as going shopping or enjoying a favorite hobby.
  • The second group was instructed to perform acts of kindness for others, such as visiting an elderly relative or helping someone carry groceries.
  • The third group was instructed to perform acts kindness to improve the world, such as recycling or donating to charity.
  • The fourth group was instructed simply to keep track of their daily activities.

Each week, participants reported their activities from the previous week, as well as their experiences of positive and negative emotions. At the beginning and end of the four-week period and again two weeks later, participants completed a questionnaire to assess their psychological flourishing—a measure of overall happiness which includes questions about psychological, social, and emotional well-being.

[At this point, you might be wondering: Is it really possible to measure happiness? Many psychologists have devoted their careers to this question and, in short, the answer is yes. Happiness is a uniquely subjective experience, which means that nobody is better at reporting on anyone’s happiness than the individuals themselves. Thus, in my research and in this study, I relied on individual reports of happiness.]

The Results

The results of the study were striking: Only participants who engaged in prosocial behavior demonstrated improvements in psychological flourishing. Participants who practiced prosocial behavior also demonstrated increases in positive emotions from one week to the next. These increases in feelings such as happiness, joy, and enjoyment also predicted increases in psychological flourishing at the end of the study. In other words, positive emotion appeared to have been a critical ingredient linking prosocial behavior to increases in flourishing.

What about the people who treated themselves? They did not show the same increases in positive emotions or psychological flourishing as those who engaged in kindness. In fact, people who treated themselves did not differ in positive emotions, negative emotions, or psychological flourishing over the course of the study compared to those in the group that merely kept track of their daily activities.

Take Home Message

Does this mean that we shouldn’t treat ourselves every now and then? Not necessarily. Believe me, I enjoy a bubble bath, a glass of wine, and a good book as much as the next person. However, the results of this study suggest that if you want to feel happier in your life, it's easier to reach that goal by treating others with kindness rather than having an extra piece of chocolate cake for yourself.

Reference

Nelson, S. K., Layous, K., Cole, S. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2016). Do unto others or treat yourself? The effects of prosocial and self-focused behavior on psychological flourishing. Emotion, 16, 850-861. doi: 10.1037/emo0000178

A version of this post appeared on Positive Psychology Program on August 27, 2016.