People often tell singles they can’t be happy as a couple until they’ve learned to be happy on their own. I disagree—there are plenty of people in loving relationships who have never mastered the art of being completely fulfilled as a single person.
But the ability to find lasting happiness, regardless of life circumstances, is still a skill worth developing, and a new study published in the journal Emotion offers interesting insights on that front.
Imagine you’ve had a bad day—a conflict with a coworker, an uninspired coffee date, etc. What would most likely make your happier?
a) Getting a massage
b) Helping a friend move
c) Picking up some stray trash on the sidewalk
d) Organizing your closet
The results of the study, which was lead by Sewanee University psychologist Katherine Nelson, suggest that your best bet would be B or C.
In a six-week-long experiment, participants were instructed to perform acts that fell into one of three categories: self-care, other-care or world-care. (A control group kept a log of their daily activities.)
The people assigned to the self-care group were told to do nice things for themselves, such as buying themselves new clothes or indulging in fancy desserts. Those in the other-care group were told to extend kindnesses to others—take a friend to lunch, compliment a stranger, help a neighbor carry groceries. Another group was asked to do things that benefitted the larger world, like donating to charity or creating a compost bin.
The researchers found that people who focused on other- or world-directed kindnesses enjoyed a happiness boost. Those who focused on self-care did not.
“People who are striving to improve their own happiness may be tempted to treat themselves to a spa day, a shopping trip or a sumptuous dessert. The results of the current study suggest, however, that when happiness seekers are tempted to treat themselves, they might be more successful if they opted to treat someone else instead,” the Emotion article said.
In their discussion of the results, the authors noted that the individuals in the other- and world-care categories enjoyed enhanced well-being for several weeks after being instructed to practice generosity. The kind actions may have “triggered an upward spiral of greater well-being. In other words, as people do nice things for others, they may feel greater joy, contentment, and love,” they wrote.
The authors also noted that the study might appear to contradict earlier research finding that self-compassion leads to greater happiness. The researchers said the disparity could be due to the nature of their experiment. In the study, individuals in the self-care group gave themselves treats like ice-cream cones and manicures, and research has found that the effects of these types of indulges wear off pretty quickly. Self-compassion is a much larger concept that involves speaking kindly to yourself—for example, being gentle with yourself when you make a mistake. “[It] represents a pattern of thinking rather than a pattern of behaving,” they wrote.
In other words, it’s important to be good to yourself, but perhaps the best way to do that is to be nice to someone else.