Can Helping Others Make You Happier?

A research team made up of psychologists at the University of Missouri-Columbia found that helping others is one of the most effective ways to improve our own well-being. (i)

The study was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in May 2021. The research team found that trying to help somebody else is better for our well-being than doing things to make ourselves happy. The research gives us a fascinating new look at how our own emotional well-being is partly dependent on the kindness we show to those around us.

Researching how generosity creates happiness

The research team started out with a simple question: are people happier when they work to making others happy?

The researchers designed five studies that asked volunteers to take part in a series of thought experiments and behaviours to test this. Two distinct approaches formed the backbone of the studies— pursuing happiness for the self or pursuing other peoples’ happiness. 

The first study had volunteers park their cars on the street. A researcher approached the volunteer and handed them some money. Then, the volunteer had to decide whether to use the money on the parking meter where their car was parked or put it in a meter for someone else’s parking.

After making their decision, volunteers were asked to rate their level of happiness. Surprisingly, the people who put money into someone else’s parking meter reported feeling a massive boost in happiness than those who just fed their own parking meter. Moreover, the growth in satisfaction happened, despite volunteers not knowing the person they helped.

In the following study, participants had to think of when they tried to make someone else happy or when they made themselves happy. Each participant wrote notes to detail the situation and was asked to rate how satisfied they felt as a result.

The results turned out to be very similar to the parking meter study. Participants who recorded higher levels of happiness were the ones who recalled a time when they had tried to make another person happy. In contrast, the people who thought about a time when they improved their own happiness ended up with lower levels of recorded cheerfulness.

After completing the five studies, the research team summarized their findings from each study:

  • Studies one, two and three show that trying to make someone else happy results in greater wellbeing than efforts to make yourself happy
  • The fourth study found there are more significant personal benefits in attempting to make others happy than when others try to make us happy
  • The fifth study found that happiness is gained from helping someone, even if you never meet them.

Feeling close to others improves our mood

The paper is not alone in finding that generosity and efforts to help others can be great for our mental health. Another study found that pet owners who splash out on new toys or treats for their pets report greater happiness than those who do not. (ii)

Notably, spending money is not the core reason why these acts of goodwill make us feel good. However, spending time and making a conscious effort to look out for others’ happiness both have mood-boosting effects and strengthen our mental well-being.

The scientists behind the research explain that we all have a deeply ingrained psychological need to feel close to others. The researchers called this “relatedness” and believe that when we make an effort to help others, we gain a sense of closeness that makes us feel happy. However, we would not get the same sense of relatedness if we only focus on self-fulfilling acts.

Ultimately, the findings give us all a new insight into how we can improve our own psychological well-being. In addition, this gives us all an evidence-based way to boost our happiness by doing little things to help other people.                                           


  1. The Journal of Positive Psychology. (2020). Happiness comes from trying to make others feel good, rather than oneself. [online] Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2021.1897867?journalCode=rpos20 [Accessed 28 May 2021].
  2. The Journal of Positive Psychology. (2020). Give a dog a bone: Spending money on pets promotes happiness. [online] Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17439760.2021.1897871?src=recsys [Accessed 28 May 2021].

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