- Attempts to make others happy increase happiness more so than trying to make oneself happy, new research suggests.
- The findings may seem counterintuitive, but they confirm previous research that shows that people derive happiness from helping others.
- Feelings of "relatedness," or being close to others, may help explain why helping others boosts mood.
Martin Luther King Jr. said the “surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.”
New research published by a team of psychologists at the University of Missouri-Columbia suggests that King’s words are as true today as they were a half-century ago — that our own happiness is, in part, influenced by the kindness and generosity we show others.
“Americans are guaranteed the right to ‘pursue happiness’ for themselves,” say the researchers, led by Liudmila Titova and Kennon Sheldon. “But might they be better off if they pursued happiness for others? We compared the two strategies, showing that, ironically, the second pursuit brings more personal happiness than the first.”
Helping Others Boosts Happiness
To arrive at this conclusion, the authors asked a group of research participants to engage in a series of behaviors and thought experiments that pitted acts of self-directed happiness against those aimed at improving the happiness of others. In one study, participants were approached on the street after parking their cars. They were given a few quarters by a research assistant and were asked to either feed their own parking meters or the meters of an adjacent car. The researchers then asked participants how happy they felt. Interestingly, people who fed others’ meters showed a greater boost in happiness than those who fed their own meters, despite not knowing who they were helping.
In another experiment, the researchers asked participants to either recall a time they tried to make someone else happy or themselves. Participants were asked to write a few sentences describing the event and rate how happy it made them feel. Again, participants who were prompted to recall a time they tried to improve the happiness of someone else reported higher levels of remembered happiness than those who wrote about a time when they tried to improve their own happiness.
“The results of these studies extend findings from previous research by showing that people derive boosted personal happiness from attempts to make other people happy — an approach that might seem counterintuitive for a lot of people at first,” state the researchers.
Inspiring Feelings of Closeness
The research squares with other studies showing how spending money on others increases one’s happiness more than spending money on oneself. But it’s not just financial generosity that has the power to increase our happiness — donating our time to someone in need, or simply adopting a mentality that puts others’ happiness above our own, has a positive impact on our psychological well-being.
The researchers offer a good explanation for why they saw the results they did. They suggest that it has to do with our basic psychological need for “relatedness,” or feeling close to others. According to the researchers, an attempt to make another person happy inspires feelings of closeness which, in turn, explains why people end up feeling happy themselves. The same chain of reasoning does not work when attempts at happiness or mood enhancement are self-directed.
Furthermore, this research adds another bullet point to a growing list of scientifically vetted techniques aimed at improving happiness. For instance, other emerging research has found that increasing our sense of mattering and autonomy, as well as making an effort to surround ourselves with optimistic people (and to live in a happier society), are also viable ways to improve psychological well-being.
Titova, L., & Sheldon, K. M. (2021). Happiness comes from trying to make others feel good, rather than oneself. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-15.