New Research Shows Treating Others Makes You Happier Than Treating Yourself

As Parks and Recreation fans know well, when you’re feeling blue, the common prescription is to “Treat Yourself.” But does that actually work? Psychology has the answer.

New research published this month in the journal “Emotion" shows that treating yourself to indulgences, like an extra scoop of ice cream or a shopping spree, doesn’t make you as happy as serving others.

“Our culture says we need to treat ourselves to feel good, but this is not the advice that many of us grew up hearing from religious traditions and grandmothers alike,” says Katherine Nelson-Coffey, assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South and lead author on the paper. “Those traditions say that we should focus on others first."

The study assigned participants to one of four tasks: to perform acts of kindness for others, to perform acts of kindness for themselves, to perform acts of kindness for humanity or the world, and to keep a journal of what they did that day, which was the control group. All the participants were asked to perform these activities for four weeks and keep track of what they did in relation to their task, as well as their experiences of positive and negative emotions. They also completed a questionnaire at the beginning and end of the four-week period, and again two weeks later, to assess psychological flourishing‚ a measure of overall happiness including questions about psychological, social and emotional well-being.

Significantly, only those who engaged in prosocial behavior—performing acts of kindness for others or the world at large—experienced improvements in positive emotions and psychological flourishing. Those positive emotions also increased from one week to the next for these groups. People who treated themselves only, however, had the same results as those who just kept track of their daily activity—it did not make them any happier. In fact, Nelson says there is a risk of negative emotion to treating only yourself, like guilt or stress associated with the consequences of those indulgences. 

One caveat that Nelson-Coffey points out is that self-indulgence is different than self-care, something that can improve happiness and wellbeing.

“The study shouldn’t take away from the importance of self-care,” she says. “Things your mother would advise you to do—exercising, eating right, and practicing self-compassion—are self-care, whereas most people ‘treat themselves’ to self-indulgences, like skipping work, overeating and spending money. Skipping work and extra dessert aren’t things our mothers would advise us to do in taking care of ourselves."

The paper, “Do Unto Others or Treat Yourself? The Effects of Prosocial and Self-Focused Behavior on Psychological Flourishing,” was co-authored by Kristin Layous, Steven W. Cole and Sonja Lyubomirsky. 

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Sewanee: The University of the South
Assistant Professor of Psychology
(931) 598-3587