When reading the news, it’s easy to feel discouraged and pessimistic about human nature. However, recent psychology studies have suggested that people aren’t actually as selfish or greedy as they sometimes seem. A growing body of research is showing that most people want to help others and that doing so makes their lives more fulfilling.
When We’re Grateful, We Want to Pay it Forward
You may have heard in the news about “pay it forward” chains: when one person offers a small favor (like paying for the meal or coffee of the person behind them in line) the recipient is likely to offer the same favor to someone else. A study by researchers at Northeastern University has found that people really do want to pay it forward when someone else helps them — and the reason is that they feel grateful. This experiment was set up so that participants would experience a problem with their computer half way through the study. When someone else helped them fix the computer, they subsequently spend more time helping the next person with their computer issues. In other words, when we feel grateful for the kindness of others, it motivates us to want to help someone as well.
When We Help Others, We Feel Happier
In a study conducted by psychologist Elizabeth Dunn and her colleagues, participants were given a small amount of money ($5) to spend during the day. Participants could spend the money however they wanted, with one important caveat: half of the participants had to spend the money on themselves, while the other half of participants had to spend it on someone else. When the researchers followed up with participants at the end of the day, they found something that might surprise you: the people who spent the money on someone else were actually happier than the people who spent money on themselves.
Our Connections With Others Make Life More Meaningful
The psychologist Carol Ryff is known for studying what is called eudaimonic well-being: that is, our sense that life is meaningful and has a purpose. According to Ryoff, our relationships with others are a key component of eudaimonic well-being. A study published in 2015 provides evidence that this is indeed the case: in this study, participants who spent more time helping others reported that their lives had a greater sense of purpose and meaning. The same study also found that participants felt a greater sense of meaning after writing a letter of gratitude to someone else. This research shows that taking time to help another person or express gratitude to someone else can actually make life more meaningful.
Supporting Others Is Linked to a Longer Life
Psychologist Stephanie Brown and her colleagues investigated whether helping others may be related to a longer life. She asked participants how much time they spent helping others (for example, helping a friend or neighbor with errands or babysitting). Over five years, she found that the participants who spent the most time helping others had the lowest risk of mortality. In other words, it appears that those who support others end up actually supporting themselves too. And it seems that many people are likely to benefit from this, given that the majority of Americans help others in some way. In 2013, one-quarter of adults volunteered and most adults spent time informally helping someone else.
It’s Possible to Become More Empathetic
Carol Dweck, of Stanford University, has conducted a wide range of research studying mindsets: people who have a “growth mindset” believe they can improve at something with effort, while people with a “fixed mindset” think their abilities are relatively unchangeable. Dweck has found that these mindsets tend to become self-fulfilling — when people believe they can get better at something, they often end up experiencing more improvements over time. It turns out thatempathy — our capacity to feel and understand the emotions of others — can be affected by our mindset too.
In a series of studies, Dweck and her colleagues found that mindsets actually affect how empathetic we are — those who were encouraged to embrace “growth mindsets” and to believe it’s possible to become more empathetic actually spent more time trying to empathize with others. As researchers describing Dweck’s studies explain, “empathy is actually a choice.” Empathy isn’t something that only a few people have the capacity for — we all have the ability to become more empathetic.
Although it can sometimes be easy to be discouraged about humanity — especially after reading news stories about war and crime — the psychological evidence suggests that this doesn’t paint a full picture of humanity. Instead, the research suggests that we want to help others and have the capacity to become more empathetic. In fact, researchers have found that we’re happier and feel that our lives are more fulfilling when we spend time helping others — so, in fact, humans are actually more generous and caring than you might have thought.
Elizabeth Hopper is a freelance writer living in California who writes about psychology and mental health.
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- New report: 1 in 4 Americans volunteer; Two-thirds help neighbors. Corporation for National and Community Service.https://www.nationalservice.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2014/new-report-1-4-americans-volunteer-two-thirds-help-neighbors
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