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Are You a Half-hearted or a Whole-hearted Helper?

By on March 26, 2010 – 10:19 am  13 Comments

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

Kindness of Strangers

Kindness of Strangers


Help! I need somebody,
Help! Not just anybody,
Help! You know I need someone,
The Beatles


Random Acts of Kindness

Every good positive psychologist knows that Random Acts of Kindness are linked to well-being. Recently I was looking for Positive Psychology research linking well-being and helping generally. One of the most frequently quoted empirical studies by Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues tells us that doing a variety of  Random Acts of Kindness, which might be simple things such as holding the door open for a stranger, or helping someone carry groceries to the car, can increase well-being, particularly if you do them in concentrated bursts (research participants did 5 Random Acts of Kindness a day once a week for 6 weeks). The intervention was thought to impact well-being by increasing self-regard, creating positive social interactions, and increasing charitable feelings towards others. In other words, helping by performing Random Acts of Kindness improves the quality of people’s relationships.

A Pseudo-Experiment

During my MAPP studies at the University of East London, a small group in my class decided to do our own pseudo-experiment with Random Acts of Kindness. One Saturday evening we set about distributing bottles of Budweiser which were left over from our faculty summer party to other students – some that we passed on the way back to our residence hall, some waiting at the campus bus-stop for a ride into town, some diligently doing their washing in the campus launderette. Of course we couldn’t measure the effect scientifically, but we definitely felt good giving our stuff away, and judging by the smiles, amusement, and gratitude, the people given bottles of Budweiser for free also felt good. For some it looked like the very first time they’d been given something for nothing. We had to assure them it wasn’t a trick and they weren’t on Candid Camera.

Recent Research on Helping and Motivation

help D3 San Francisco Netta Weinstein and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester have recently published research on the impact of doing things for others. Ryan’s name is most frequently linked with Self-Determination Theory (SDT) that links intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to the three basic psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness and competence. There’s a clue here to the nature of their experiments and their ultimate conclusions.

Their research looked at the link between well-being and autonomous help on the one hand versus controlled help on the other hand. With autonomous help, we freely give because we want to help. With controlled help, we’re coerced into giving, perhaps because we feel guilty, because we’re told to help, or because we get some reward for helping.

Four different studies were carried out, including a daily diary study of helping behaviors and well-being and experiments in which people were randomly given the opportunity to help their study partner complete a test and win a prize which they themselves were precluded from winning.

What is perhaps surprising is that helping others, per se, did not generally relate to well-being as measured by subjective well-being, vitality, or self-esteem. People who engaged in more helpful behaviors across the 2 weeks were not better off, nor were people better off on days when they helped someone compared to days when they did not. Yet autonomous help had a consistent and substantial impact on well-being.

These studies suggest that it may not be the helping act itself that is responsible for increasing the well-being of the helper, but rather the specific motivational quality of the act. This is an important clarification of the general message that helping is good for your well-being.

Hugo with dandelions

Hugo with dandelions

What about the Well-being of People who Received Help?

Did well-being increase for the people being helped? The studies demonstrated that recipients of autonomous help experienced higher well-being in terms of positive affect, vitality, and self-esteem, whereas recipients of controlled help didn’t get any well-being benefits or even reported lower well-being than those who didn’t receive any help at all! Recipients of autonomous help also thought that their helpers made more effort, and they felt closer to them.

It’s worth pointing out that in the study, the people who received help weren’t told their helper’s motivation. Weinstein and Ryan suggest that therefore their responses were generated entirely as a result of the quality of the interpersonal experience, that receiving autonomous help makes you feel more valued, compared to receiving help that the helper feels compelled to give. I’m not so sure about this explanation. Personally I think it’s quite likely that at least some of the people could instinctively detect the motivation of the helper.

Nevertheless, this research does raise some interesting questions about the impact of your helping on the well-being of other people, particularly when having no choice as to whether you help or not seems to result in their well-being being lower than if you didn’t help them in the first place. So perhaps we all need to think twice before we do things for others halfheartedly or begrudgingly. What Weinstein and Ryan’s research seems to suggest is either to help wholeheartedly, or not at all.

Editor’s note: This article appears in the chapter on Kindness in the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.



Lyubomirsky, S., Tkach, C., & Sheldon, K.M. (2004). [Pursuing sustained happiness through random acts of kindness and counting one’s blessings: Tests of two six-week interventions]. Unpublished raw data. Results presented in: Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111–131.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.

Weinstein, N & Ryan, R. (2010). When helping helps: Autonomous motivation for pro-social behavior and its influence on well-being for the helper and recipient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98 (2), 222–244.


Kindness of Strangers courtesy of Ed Yourdon
Help! courtesy of D3 San Francisco
Hugo with dandelions courtesy of Bridget Grenville-Cleave


  • wayne jencke says:

    Bridget – great article.

    This makes absolute sense. You see it at work everyday. Some people like helping customers and some don’t. And customers pick up on their attitude.

    There is heaps of research about this from a customer service perspective.

    Looks like another piece of PP dogma has to be put in context.

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Wayne

    Thanks for your comment. Yes to be honest I was a bit surprised when I came across this research – it seemed so obvious that motivation would be at the heart of it – I’m sure we can all think of times when we’ve received help from someone who didn’t want to give it, and how you end up feeling worse than before as a result.

    As for jobs like customer service, it explains why examining someone’s strengths is so crucial to recruiting the right person for the job.

    I was also wondering about the implications for vocations like nursing and teaching, and whether making them professions and “externalising” the rewards more will have consequences for the people in these professions, and for the quality of help given.


  • wayne says:

    Bridget – seems like we are going back to much of the work that is really undertaken in business.

    What really is the difference between running a personality profile and a strengths profile when recruiting?

  • Amanda Horne says:

    Hi Bridget
    Great article. This reminds us to select activities which give us meaning and connect with our purpose, enable us to use our strengths. When we work with meaning, purpose and are using our strengths we naturally give with passion and with heart, it must therefore rub off on the recipient.

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Wayne

    Well I suppose one very obvious difference is that personality profiles don’t measure strengths, and vice versa ;->


  • wayne says:

    Bridget – Myers Briggs measures personality profiles. And looks at it from both a strengths and weaknesses perspective. Personally I think a personality profile gives you far more information than the VIA ever will.

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Amanda

    Thanks for your comment. Yes on that basis doing any kind of helping activity which involves using your strengths must be a cast-iron way of improving your well-being at the same time as helping someone.

    Do you think it always matters to the person being helped that their helper is intrinsically motivated? Does it depend on the type of help, and the situation? If my car breaks down, I just want the garage to fix it quickly, effectively and without ripping me off, I don’t think it matters to me whether the mechanic is intrinsically motivated or not. But if I were seriously ill in hospital it would probably matter a lot more whether the care I received from nurses and doctors was intrinsically motivated or not.


  • Bridget says:

    Hi Wayne

    Would it be too pedantic to suggest that strengths assessments like the VIA don’t measure weaknesses?

    As to MBTI, I’ve never seen it generate a huge amount of excitment in people (although that may have something to do with the facilitator, rather than the assessment itself) whereas I’ve seen them get very excited about their VIA strengths profile. Perhaps it’s because a strengths profile like the VIA is more simplistic that it’s more useful to people – it’s in day-to-day language that people can understand. As a British person, I can’t say the same about the StrengthsFinder, however ;->


  • wayne says:

    Bridget – It’s certainly not too pedantic. Your comments focus on a fundamental weakness of PP – its obsession with strengths. You need balance – that’s the beauty of something like MBTI.

    You’re right – I get a good participant reponse from MBTI and a crappy response when I cover strengths. Primarily because I can’t get into strengths based on the reserach I’ve read.

  • Bridget says:

    Hi Wayne

    Thanks for your comments – a very interesting discussion. I’m not sure about obsession as such, I think the strengths approach is meaningful (and helpful) for many people, hence it’s popularity, plus it is one of the more concrete aspects of PP, and therefore easy to grasp. Personally I agree with you completely that you need balance, however in my experience, people who express an interest in finding out more about PP are motivated to find out more about the positive stuff, at least initially. They’re not so interested in finding a balance – that might just be because it takes time to get your head round a new subject. Maybe once they’ve assimilated the strength of the strengths approach, they’d be in a position to find out more about its weaknesses. If you know what I mean!

    Could you tell us more wbout your experience of using VIA with others – do you mean in organisations? It may provide some useful insights. And have you tried StrengthsFinder or Strengthscope (my preferred choice), and if so what was the reaction? There are two very important points which we can’t get away from and these are i)”talking the person’s/organisation’s language” matters – the activity has to be the right fit and ii) the facilitator matters.


  • oz says:

    Bridget – you articlulated my perspectives very well.

    And you are right – the facilitator matters

    As I said I don’t emphasise strengths primarily because the research is so weak.

    I do talk about cultivating the top 5 strengths from a life satisfaction perspective.

    We also have a discussion about why there is a perception that strengths might work. ie getting off your butt and doing something -which is fundamentally zest.

  • Bridget says:

    Hello again Wayne (Oz)

    When you say that the strengths research is weak, do you have some particular research in mind? I’d be very interested to hear your reservations/criticisms.


  • wayne says:


    I’ve tried the follwing experiments with my clients

    1. I have picked a lower rated strength (not the lowest) and told them its a strength and got them to work on it. And it improved their life satisfaction.

    2. Picked a high rated strength (not their hightest) and told them it was a weakness and asked them to work on it. Again it improved their life satisfaction.

    Possible conclusions:

    1. Its about doing (zest) more than the strength
    2. Its about langauaging – strenghts versus weaknesses.

    No research I have seen answers these questions – yet they are fundamental.

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