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