Researchers from HSE University have analysed why people feel happier when they help others. It turns out that joy is caused by different reasons, depending on who we help — relatives or strangers. In both cases, happiness brings moral satisfaction from doing a good deed, but helping loved ones is also associated with satisfying the need for belonging and acceptance, while helping strangers provides a sense of autonomy. The results of the research were published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Mutual assistance and caring for each other are typical for all human communities. At the same time, prosocial behavior, that is, behavior aimed at helping another person or group, benefits not only the specific recipient and society, but also the helper. Studies confirm that if people spend their money or time on others, even a relatively insignificant amount, then they feel happier.
By helping others, people are able to satisfy their basic psychological needs: they understand that they can cope with fairly complex tasks (the need for competence), can act freely (the need for autonomy), and feel connected to other people (the need for meaningful interpersonal relationships). In addition, joy is closely connected to the feeling that a person has done the right thing. However, helping loved ones and strangers can be very different. As a rule, when taking care of loved ones, we invest more energy and emotions than when we help outsiders: helping a relative with paperwork and giving directions to a stranger are tasks of different complexity.
Two researchers from the HSE Faculty of Social Sciences, Inna Devyatko and Ekaterina Nastina, analysed how happiness, prosocial behavior and the basic psychological needs of a person are related. Scientists conducted two experiments involving more than 400 volunteers. The participants were randomly divided into three groups: in the first, the subjects described examples of helping friends or relatives. The second group recalled how they helped strangers. The third group was a control group: participants were asked to describe a trip to the store or their plans for the week. Then the researchers compared the degree of satisfaction of psychological needs and subjective well-being of the participants (that is, how they assess the quality of their lives) of the first two groups with the control one.
The first experiment in the study was based on the subjects' own memories. The results showed that helping both loved ones and strangers brought a sense of moral satisfaction, while caring for loved ones also strengthened the sense of belonging, and intimacy with other people.
The second experiment was conducted differently: the subjects in the first two groups were asked to help others for a week and then describe the most significant kind act. When comparing the level of subjective well-being and the degree of satisfaction of basic needs with the control group, the results turned out to be contradictory. Strengthening connections with other people was noticeable only in those situations where they were helping loved ones. The moral satisfaction and subjective well-being of the experimental groups did not differ significantly from the control group.
Helping loved ones and strangers can be very different. As an example of helping strangers, people most often recalled how they held the door open, gave directions or helped carry a heavy bag to the car, but these situations were rarely mentioned in relationships with loved ones. Obviously, such actions are taken for granted, and therefore don’t make us happier.
The researchers decided to corroborate the results of the second experiment taking into account the basic human need for competence. When the perceived effectiveness of the kind act was held constant, it became apparent that people who helped others felt more moral satisfaction and pleasure than those who were engaged in everyday activities. In addition, those helping strangers reported higher satisfaction of their need for autonomy.
Any help, either to close or distant recipients, helps us feel better. At the same time, taking care of family and friends brings joy from strengthening our connection with them, and helping strangers helps us feel free and independent.