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Helping Others Improves the Lives and Psychological Well-being of Russians

Happiness in Altruism


Opinion: It is believed that helping those you love makes you happier than helping strangers.

In fact: People feel more life satisfaction as long as they are helping others—whether loved ones or strangers.

Now for more details

HSE Researcher Ekaterina Nastina has found that the more often Russians help others (whether loved ones or strangers), the more satisfied they are with their lives. However, if a person is over 50 years of age or if values of social justice are important to him or her, helping family and friends has no significant influence on his or her psychological well-being. On the other hand, pro-social, altruistic behaviour towards strangers is equally beneficial to people of all ages and beliefs. A total of 757 respondents took part in the study. An article containing the results was published in the Sociological Journal.

The study was conducted as part of HSE University's Basic Research Programme.

What is it all about?

Scientific evidence shows that pro-social behaviour can not only benefit society and individuals, but also increase the subjective well-being of those who help. On average, people who engage in volunteering and charity are happier and more satisfied with their lives. There is even a special concept in economics called ‘warm glow’—the feeling of joy felt by the benefactor as a result of donation.

The effectiveness of the donation does not matter much, notes Ekaterina Nastina. ‘Experiments have shown that even small 'good deeds' such as helping a friend with an essay, visiting an elderly relative or writing a thank-you note to a former professor result in increased psychological well-being for the person doing these things,’ the researcher writes.

However, many questions remain as to exactly how helping behaviour contributes to life satisfaction. For example, do actions that benefit a friend and those that benefit a stranger have the same impact? One study found that emotional rewards were higher when people helped their close friends and family members. However, an attempt to confirm these results in a longitudinal experiment on a more heterogeneous sample was unsuccessful. No significant differences in the level of happiness were found among those who helped close friends and those who helped people they barely knew.

Another question concerns the influence of values: is helping someone else more conducive to well-being among those for whom it is an important life priority? A study based on Shalom Schwartz's theory of basic individual values answers this question positively. ‘It is found that a direct correlation between charity and happiness is significant only for people with a high expression of “caring for people and nature” values,’ explains Ekaterina Nastina. In other words, we can conclude that if pro-social actions allow people to live out their values, they add to their life satisfaction.

Researchers also investigated the influence of demographic characteristics on the relationship between helping others and emotional rewards. They found, for example, that younger people engaged in pro-social activities tend to have higher levels of subjective well-being.

Russian researchers have also been actively studying pro-social behaviour in recent years. But studies on the relationship between personal well-being and helping behaviour are still relatively scarce. These include a joint project by the Public Opinion Foundation and the Life Line Charitable Foundation. In a representative sample of 1,500 respondents, their experts found a direct correlation between the level of happiness and the acts done during the year for the benefit of others (excluding members of their own family).

Another study found a positive correlation between altruistic motives and indicators of subjective well-being among Moscow students. Oksana Sinyavskaya (HSE University) and her colleagues studied the impact of formal and informal social activities (including pro-social behaviour in the form of volunteering) on the level of happiness of older people in European countries, including Russia. The results showed a significant positive correlation.

The new study by Ekaterina Nastina, as she explains herself, gives a more accurate picture of the mechanisms of the link between informal pro-social behaviour and life satisfaction among Russians. It also reveals a number of nuances associated with changes in this relationship depending on age and people's value orientations.

How was it studied?

A total of 757 people, aged 20 to 75, took part in the study. Respondents were recruited from Russia's largest consumer panel, OMI, using quotas by gender and age. The panel members are voluntarily registered internet users living in Russian cities with a population of 100,000 or more. They take part in surveys on a regular basis for a fee or for bonus points within the system.

In addition to answering the questions about helping loved ones (family and friends) and strangers (‘How often do you usually help...?’), respondents were also tested using Ed Diener’s Satisfaction With Life Scale. Additionally, the values of ‘universalism’ (importance of social equality; well-being of any person and nature) and ‘benevolence’ (importance of well-being of loved ones) were measured using appropriate judgments from the Shalom Schwartz portrait questionnaire.

According to the hypotheses of the study, ‘the higher the “benevolence” in the individual's value hierarchy, the stronger the connection between pro-social behaviour towards close friends and family members and life satisfaction’, and ‘the higher the “universalism” in the individual's value hierarchy, the stronger the connection between pro-social behaviour towards strangers and life satisfaction’. Using some previous work, the researcher also suggested that the connection between helping others and life satisfaction is more pronounced in young people.

What were the findings?

The results showed that Russians are more likely to exhibit pro-social behaviour towards family and friends than towards strangers. ‘The average for the former was 3.66 on a five-point scale, with 55% of respondents choosing values of 4 (‘often’) or 5 (‘very often’). At the same time, the average frequency of helping strangers was 2.72. There were only 15% of those who help this category of beneficiaries often or very often,’ says Ekaterina Nastina.

The results of regression modelling confirmed that those who help others more often are more satisfied with their lives. This is true for both men and women. The effect of helping loved ones was more pronounced than that of helping strangers, but these differences cannot be called significant. And, as the researcher explains, ‘in no case was there any evidence that life satisfaction became lower when helping a certain type of beneficiary too often.’

As for the influence of values on the relationship between pro-social behaviour and subjective well-being, the study hypotheses were not confirmed. ‘No evidence was found that people for whom “benevolence” is higher in the value hierarchy become happier as a result of increased frequency of acts of kindness towards loved ones compared to those for whom helping the group is not as important. Also, contrary to expectations, “universalism” does not increase the positive effect of helping strangers on life satisfaction,’ comments the researcher. However, as she explains, focusing more on social equality significantly reduces the positive influence of more frequent helping behaviour towards strangers and at its highest level reduces the connection between the variables to zero.

Helping family and friends appears to bring less life satisfaction to those who place a higher value on fairness and equality of all people. Pro-social actions may be seen by ‘universalists’ as behaviour expected of them in any case, rather than as a manifestation of true altruism. This is consistent with some research showing that acts of kindness for loved ones are consistently rated as having less moral value compared to helping strangers.

Analyses of the data confirmed the influence of age. Doing good to those close to us was found to be less associated with subjective well-being amongst those aged 51 and over, compared with young people (20–25 years old). In previous studies, Ekaterina Nastina explains, this effect was attributed to the fact that helping behaviour can be more satisfying in the early stages of personality formation and development, when people are actively engaged in searching for their place in society and the meaning of life. ‘In turn, older people may be particularly susceptible to emotional tension and stress when combining multiple social roles that require helping behaviour, due to limited physical and psychological resources,’ comments the researcher.

Why should we care?

The findings shed light on how helping loved ones and strangers has the potential to affect people's subjective well-being depending on their values and age. People over the age of 50 and people with a pronounced value of ‘universalism’ receive less emotional ‘reward’ for helping their close friends and family members. But for volunteering, the idea of which is helping strangers, the positive impact on subjective well-being will be the same, regardless of the age and value profile of the person helping, comments Ekaterina Nastina.

The researcher notes, however, that such conclusions can only be drawn tentatively. ‘This paper postulates that helping others leads to increased subjective well-being in the actor, but it is also possible that the level of happiness and life satisfaction determines the probability and frequency of pro-social actions,’ she notes. Foreign studies show that the connection can be reciprocal: helping others creates a positive feedback loop in which increased life satisfaction and happiness contribute to new pro-social actions. However, as Ekaterina Nastina explains, only experiments can clarify the extent to which this is characteristic of Russia.

Study author:

Ekaterina Nastina, Associate Research Fellow at the Ronald Franklin Inglehart Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences

Author: Marina Selina, March 10, 2023