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How to be Happy by Giving to Others

The secret of the helper’s high
helping others


Helping brings joy
Credit: Thinkstock

The Declaration of Independence proclaims that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right. Indeed, happiness is a universal human yearning—people of all ages, genders, shapes, and sizes want to be happy. And humans have shown themselves to be quite adept at pursuing happiness, devoting much of their money, time, and energy to this quest. But what about our ability to actually attain happiness? Well, that’s a different story. Finding the right path to happiness can be a challenge because, as research has shown, although we think we know the keys to happiness, we are actually not very good at predicting what will bring us joy.

Recently, a burgeoning field of research has helped resolve this happiness paradox by showing that prosocial behavior—voluntary behavior intended to benefit another—can boost happiness. Although acts of kindness directly benefit the well-being of the recipient, they also create a pleasurable “helper’s high” that benefits the giver. For instance, volunteer work is associated with greater happiness and less depression, and research has shown that performing five random acts of kindness one day a week (for six weeks) can increase your happiness. Moreover, at the end of the work day, if you more strongly feel that your work made a positive difference in other people’s lives, you feel more positively at bedtime. Even research on spending has uncovered similar effects: Those who spend money on others (versus themselves) experience greater happiness. So, telling people to do good things for others appears to be a good strategy for personal happiness.

However, our new research sought to show that even if people decide to perform an act of kindness, the way they approach the act can dramatically affect the helper’s high they experience. Specifically, when striving to help others, it may be much better for you to frame your goals in concrete terms than abstract ones, as this could increase your helper’s high. It’s an important insight because the bigger helper’s high not only makes you happier in that moment, but it more strongly motivates you to give again in the future—spurring a cycle of doing good deeds for others and personal happiness.

In our experiment, we first needed to know what people expected would make them most happy. We showed participants two similar goals: the abstract goal of making someone happy and a more concretely framed version of this goal—making someone smile. Next, we asked them how much happiness they thought they would experience if they performed an act in service of each goal. In line with the popular adage that one should “aim for the stars,” people predicted the loftier, abstract goal of making someone happy would create a bigger helper’s high.

However, a subsequent experiment showed that givers are actually better off if they frame their goals in concrete terms. In this second study, we gave participants 24 hours to perform an act of kindness. Half of the people were asked to make someone happy; the other half were asked to make someone smile. We found that, although people in both groups performed the same types of acts (such as giving gifts, proffering food and drink, or lending helping hands), those who pursued the bigger, abstract goal of making others happy ended up less happy than those who pursued the simpler, concrete goal of making others smile.

What’s more, across six studies with nearly 500 different people, we showed that this effect doesn’t just apply to the goal of making someone happy (versus smile), but to acts-of-kindness goals in general. We showed the same effect when the goals were about environmentalism (e.g., increasing the amount of materials or resources that are recycled or reused versus supporting environmental sustainability) and health (e.g., giving those in need of bone marrow transplants a better chance of finding a donor versus giving them greater hope). It did not matter whether a goal was designed to benefit an individual, a group, or society as a whole—the concrete goal still outperformed the abstract goal and delivered greater happiness to the giver. But what explains this difference in happiness?

We discovered that framing a goal in concrete terms makes a giver more realistic about their prospects of success. When expectations are too high, it can lead to disappointment and less happiness. But when you frame a goal concretely, you become more focused on how to achieve that goal and can better anticipate the obstacles and opportunities you might encounter along the way. This helps you set accurate expectations that your acts of kindness can actually live up to. Also, you tend to feel more confident that you’ve achieved a goal when it’s framed concretely, as the standards of success are less vague: It is pretty clear whether you have made someone smile, but harder to tell whether you have made someone happy. Rather than chasing lofty, abstract goals, we may be better off reframing those goals in more concrete terms. In this way, instead of hoping we stumble on happiness, we might walk right towards it — and do some good for the world along the way.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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