Happiness is Serving

Tom Jacobs:

The point has been made by everyone from neuroscientists to foul-mouthedsinging puppets: If you really want to be happy, set aside your own desires and help others. But do we really believe it, and do we, in fact, behave accordingly?

If your answer is a sheepish “no,” you might want to consider the results of anewly published study. It followed a diverse group of people for six weeks as they either focused on themselves, or performed regular works of kindness and charity.

Unlike their self-centered counterparts, those who gave of their time felt higher levels of positive emotions through the course of the study. What’s more, their “psychological flourishing” remained heightened for at least two weeks following its completion.

“People striving for happiness may be tempted to treat themselves,” writes a research team led by psychologist S. Katherine Nelson of Sewanee: The University of the South. “Our results, however, suggest that they may be more successful if they opt to treat someone else instead.”

The study, published in the journal Emotion, featured 472 participants (60 percent female) recruited from three different sources: a community sample; students at a California university; and online, via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Participants were given cash payments (and, for the students, course credits).

“As people do nice things for others, they may feel greater joy, contentment, and love, which in turn promote greater overall well-being.”

Participants received a specific set of instructions once a week for four consecutive weeks. On each occasion, they were instructed to perform three actions the following day: “Perform three nice things for others,” such as visiting a sick acquaintance; “Perform three nice things to improve the world,” such as picking up litter, or donating used clothes to a charity; and “Perform three acts of kindness for yourself,” such as having a favorite meal, or spending time on a favorite hobby; or simply “Keep track of your activities.”

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