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Doing Good Makes Life Meaningful

How putting others first can give your life purpose

You've probably heard advice like this before: "Put your own needs first," or "Be sure to make sure you're getting what you need, then worry about others." However, scientific research suggests that when it comes to cultivating a meaningful life, this might not be the best strategy. Now, I'm not talking about self-abasing neglect or self-deprivation patterns that threaten one’s own well-being. Rather, continually acting on one's selfish motivations in which one prioritizes their own needs before others might not be the best route to a meaningful, fulfilling life.

A wide variety of research suggests the following: putting the needs of others before your own provides people with a sense of meaning and purpose. First, researchers, such as Michael Steger and colleagues, have found support for something called the "do-good-feel-good" hypothesis. When people help others, they feel happier; also, happier people tend to be more helpful (Steger, Kashdan, & Oishi, 2008). So, there is a cycle between helping and happiness. However, happiness is different than meaning, but such research is promising.

Second, a large-scale study examining more than a thousand American adults, led by Wilhelm Hofmann, found that when people act morally, not only did they feel momentarily more happy, they actually reporting feeling a greater sense of purpose (Hoffman, Wisneski, Brandt, & Skitka, 2014). Daily moral actions translate to a purpose filled life. Take a moment to think about those moral exemplars whose lives are notable and considered particularly meaningful because of their selfless contributions to the world.

Finally, other research, such as that led by Patricia Frazier, has found following times when meaning is uncertain or threatened, such as natural disasters, people engage in helpful or prosocial actions, which may help them recover meaning (Frazier et al., 2012). That is, when people experience upheavals in meaning, they might turn toward attending toward the needs of others as way to regain psychological equanimity.

In a culture of selfishness and "me-centeredness," we also see a longing for meaning, purpose, and significance. Although I am certainly not suggesting that morality is a panacea that will suddenly grant enduring purpose to all who practice it, psychological science suggests that it putting the needs of others before our own might help make our own lives a bit more meaningful.

Suggested Readings:

Frazier, P., Greer, C., Gabrielsen, S., Tennen, H., Park, C., & Tomich, P. (2012). The relation between trauma and prosocial behavior. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 5, 286–294.

Hofmann, W., Wisneski, D. C., Brandt, M. J., & Skitka, L. J. (2014) Morality in everyday life. Science, 345, 1340-1343.

Steger, M. F., Kashdan, T. B., & Oishi, S. (2008). Being good by doing good: Eudaimonic activity and daily well-being correlates, mediators, and temporal relations. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 22-42.