Helping Others Is One of the Best Ways of Helping Yourself

Let’s say you find someone who just did something generous and put them on the spot by interviewing them. You ask them, “Why did you do that generous thing?”

They might say “because it was the right thing to do” or “because I wanted to give back.” What it really comes down to, though, is that people help other people because it feels good.

And it turns out that the good feeling you get from helping other people can have a real effect on your overall psychological well-being, happiness and health.

A study just published in Emotion has added evidence to the increasingly popular idea that helping other people is good for you.

The research followed 473 people over the course of 6 weeks. Each of the people were instructed to perform either acts of kindness directed at other people or society in general, self-focused “acts of kindness” aimed at raising their own mood, or random acts aimed at no one in particular.

The group assigned to undertake self-oriented acts didn’t fare any better or worse than the group performing neutral acts. However, the group that set out to help others experienced more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions than the other two groups.

The acts of generosity tended to boost people’s sense of well-being regardless of whether they were directed at individuals or at society in general. This finding led the study’s authors to conclude:

People striving for happiness may be tempted to treat themselves. Our results, however, suggest that they may be more successful if they opt to treat someone else instead.

Helping other people appears to be a human impulse that is both universal and very deeply ingrained. Research published last year found that 5-year-old children in a remote Vanuatuan village were happier giving away candy than receiving it and were likewise happier giving away their own candy than candy belonging to the researchers.

In fact, the desire to help other people is so fundamental that doing so may actually be physically healthy. Older adults tend to have lower blood pressure the more money they spend on other people. Moreover, instructing older adults to spend more money on other people actually lowers their blood pressure over the course of three weeks by about the same amount as medication or exercise.

The theory that helping others is one of the best ways of helping yourself is leading to exciting new interventions to improve people’s health and psychological well-being. For example, an Israeli program called Sahi encourages at-risk teenagers to commit anonymous acts of kindness in their neighborhoods. Teens participating in the program report feeling more independent, confident, empathetic and optimistic.

But the best thing about this sort of intervention is that there are pretty much an unlimited number of ways you can implement it in your own life. So if you want to do something nice for yourself, go do something nice for someone else!

Image: Illuchine


  1. Nancy J Nagler on April 27, 2016 at 11:57 am

    I heartily agree with this. It was suggested by my therapist that I volunteer. Typical me, I had to be ‘ready’ for it but it has become a way of life now. I call myself a ‘career volunteer’ and do so in my life. I started working at our local hospital in computer data entry and soon began helping at the local St. Vincent de Paul store. That led me to their Community Resource Center and somehow into the free medical clinic there. I started by building a data base with reports for the free dental services. Next thing I knew I was doing the rest of the clerk type stuff for the clinic. Then on August 1, 2002, I was asked to be their medical transcriptionist. Payment, maybe a $25 gift card or a free lunch once a year. Great pay.

    I’m still at it, both hating it and loving it. Medical transcription is difficult, even with the medical knowledge I had at the time. 13 yrs later, they are still finding new medications and terms. Plus, my ears, mind, and fingers don’t play well together so I go slow but get it right. I tell people that I wouldn’t do this for pay. I do it for the founding doctors, the current providers, and of course the patients. I hope someday, universal health care WILL come and we can shut our doors, but until then, we are all there for the duration.

    Just making someone’s day a little better with a ‘hi’ or complementing on looking good is a priceless investment. They feel better and so do you. Win, Win. It is a good way to live and show gratitude for what ever we have. After all, most of us are better off than over 75% of the world.

    • Neil Petersen on April 28, 2016 at 8:03 pm

      Nancy, that’s awesome. Thanks for sharing these experiences. You’re right — doing something like that for someone else is the ultimate win-win!

  2. EG on June 8, 2016 at 1:54 pm

    I agree with this. I have C-PTSD and a TBI, I basically lived in isolation for years and had no idea how to get out of it, I was afraid to talk to people. I started giving change to homeless people and then started chatting with them and then one day a homeless lady who always asked me for change asked me to sit with her! We sat and talked for over an hour. After that I started going out every day to spend time with her and a few other homeless people. Seeing them and spending time with them makes them happy and it makes me happy. Being useful and being wanted and appreciated has boosted my confidence, spending time with them has made me appreciate what I do have instead focusing on what I don’t have. It has also helped me with learning to set boundaries as some of them are very ill and at times a bit inappropriate. It’s been 2 years since that lady asked me to sit with her and I have grown to love her, she is an awesome lady who has changed me for the better.

    I have also found that doing something as simple as holding a door for someone or letting them cut ahead in line can make them really happy which is odd but really nice 🙂

    • Neil Petersen on June 9, 2016 at 3:32 am

      EG, that’s a wonderful and inspiring story. Thank you for sharing your experiences.