When Does it Feel Good to Give?

When I was younger, I loved the movie Pay it Forward. Sure, this was partially because it was one of the first PG-13 movies I was allowed to watch, and my 12-year old brain thought that adding such a “grown-up” film to my favorites list would unquestionably increase my coolness. But I was also struck by the idea that random acts of kindness could reach so many people in such meaningful ways. For those who haven’t seen it, Pay it Forward details the journey of a young boy named Trevor as he seeks to change the world by helping three people—without expecting anything in return—and tasking them with paying the kindness forward. Throughout the film, we witness the profound impact of Trevor’s selfless deeds (as well as Jon Bon Jovi in a dramatic acting role). The movie sends an encouraging message about the power of kindness to alleviate human suffering, highlighting how the recipients of Trevor’s undertaking benefited from such altruism. But were the recipients the only ones who gained, or might the mere act of paying it forward confer benefits to givers as well?

When we talk about help or support—whether it be emotional (e.g., comforting a distressed friend) or instrumental (e.g., helping a neighbor carry groceries)—we often think about its benefits for the person on the receiving end. I might feel less distressed after getting a friend’s advice about how to navigate a challenge at work or feel less overwhelmed after a stranger offers to give me directions when I’m lost. But, as eloquently summarized in Sarah Tashjian’s Psych in Action post earlier this year, these acts of kindness, or “prosocial behaviors”, can also be highly rewarding for givers. For example, studies have shown that participating in volunteer work (Piliavin & Siegl, 2007), spending money on other people (Hill & Howell, 2014), providing emotional support to a friend (Morelli, Lee, Arnn, & Zaki, 2015), and helping out strangers (Raposa, Laws, & Ansell, 2016) can promote our well-being. Research among older married adults has even found that individuals who gave more social support to their friends, relatives, neighbors, and spouses experience reduced mortality risk (Brown, Nesse, Vinokur, & Smith. 2003)! Together these studies suggest that giving indeed feels good. But does giving feel equally good for everyone?

Who Does Helping Help?

Recent research has sought to address this very question—who does helping help…the most? To answer this question, it’s important to consider why prosocial behavior may be particularly rewarding for the giver. For example, guided by self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), researchers have proposed that giving feels good because it fulfills certain basic psychological needs (Hill & Howell, 2014; Hui & Kogan, 2017; Weinstein & Ryan, 2010), like competence (e.g., ability to create positive changes), relatedness (e.g., connectedness to others), and autonomy (e.g., behaving freely). When we help our grandparents clean out their garage, we may experience increased self-efficacy as we physically assist them with making progress on the task (competence), feel a sense of companionship and closeness as we engage in positive social interactions (relatedness), and, assuming the act was self-initiated, we may derive pleasure from knowing this help was volitional and consistent with our values (autonomy). In turn, one possibility is that engaging in prosocial behavior would be particularly rewarding for individuals lacking a sense of competence, social connection, or autonomy.

Indeed, several studies have found that prosocial behavior promotes well-being among some people more than others. For example, consistent with the theory put forth by self-determination frameworks referenced above, one study (Hui & Kogan, 2017) found that adults who generally experienced low levels of autonomy derived greater well-being (e.g., happiness, positive mood) from acting prosocially compared to those experiencing high levels of autonomy. That is, for people who lack a sense of choice and psychological freedom in their everyday lives, engaging in acts of kindness might offer a means of meeting the fundamental need to feel in control of one’s own behavior. Additional work has similarly documented amplified benefits of prosocial behavior for people experiencing other types of psychological difficulties, such as high levels of neuroticism (Snippe et al., 2018), body dissatisfaction (Zuffianò et al., 2018), and social anxiety (Alden & Trew, 2013). Across these studies, it has been suggested that helping others may offer opportunities for people to receive positive recognition from others (Zuffianò et al., 2018) and increase a sense of social self-worth (Alden & Trew, 2013), experiences which are likely to be particularly meaningful among individuals lacking self-esteem (e.g., low body dissatisfaction) or fearing negative social evaluation (e.g., social anxiety).

Prosocial Behavior in Adolescence: The Role of Depressive Symptoms

Extending from research on the daily benefits of prosocial behavior, which has often been conducted among adults, I became interested in whether day-to-day acts of kindness towards close others would similarly promote better mood among adolescents, and whether such effects may vary as a function of teens’ depressive symptoms. Why adolescents and why depression? The adolescent years are characterized by a heightened peer orientation—in other words, teenagers care a lot about what other people think of them, especially their same-aged friends and romantic prospects/partners. Adolescence is also a developmental period during which we see a substantial increase in rates of depression (Kessler, Avenevoli, & Merikangas, 2001; Lewinsohn & Essau, 2002), which is often characterized by heightened interpersonal sensitivity and social-evaluative concerns (Rudolph, 2009). So, during a developmental stage where youth already become increasingly preoccupied with the opinions of close others, depressed adolescents tend to show intensified negative emotions following stressful social experiences, such as social rejection (e.g., Silk et al., 2014). What does this have to do with prosocial behavior? On one hand, insofar as youth with depressive symptoms have very negative self-views (e.g., feeling unworthy) and anhedonia (lack of pleasure), they might experience a dampened positive response to engaging in prosocial behavior—that is, they wouldn’t derive the same benefits from helping others that has been documented in prior work. On the other hand, if depressed adolescents are especially concerned with social disapproval from close others and worry about their relational competence, engaging in prosocial behavior may be especially rewarding, insofar as it could promote a sense of self-worth and self-efficacy.

In recent work at USC, we decided to try to answer some of these questions among a sample of late adolescents using daily diary methods (Schacter & Margolin, 2018). Daily diaries allow us to examine adolescents’ prosocial behavior as it unfolds in everyday life, rather than relying on a one-time global report that asks questions like, “on a scale of 1 to 5, how much do you typically help your friends?”. Every day for 10 days we asked participants if they had provided support to any of their friends or a romantic partner (e.g., stood up for them; made them feel their thoughts/feelings were important). Each day we also asked them to tell us about their mood—for example, how happy, excited, sad, and distressed they felt. We then examined whether adolescents reported a better mood on days that they helped out close others. Moreover, we investigated whether these day-to-day links varied as a function of adolescents’ depressive symptoms, which were measured in a lab visit immediately preceding the daily diaries. In our analyses, we also took into account participants’ mood from the prior day, whether they received any support from friends or romantic partners each day, and their overall anxiety symptoms. That is, we wanted to ensure that there was something unique about giving help (as opposed to receiving it) that related to mood, and that there was something unique about depressive symptoms (as opposed to anxiety symptoms or overall internalizing difficulties) that modified these links.

Consistent with past studies, we found that youth experienced increased positive mood on days that they were more prosocial; prosocial behavior was unrelated to negative mood. On days that participants received help, in contrast, they actually reported more negative mood (see Gleason, Iida, Shrout, & Bolger, 2008 for an interesting study on why receiving support can be a “mixed blessing”). Moreover, we found that daily links between prosocial behavior and positive mood were strongest for youth with higher, as opposed to lower, levels of depressive symptoms. The findings highlight that giving indeed relates to feeling good, even among adolescents, but they also provide some initial evidence that giving might feel especially good among youth experiencing higher levels of emotional distress. Although we did not test specifically why this is the case, we suggest that prosocial behavior towards close others may offer a sense of social and emotional fulfillment for depressed youth who are especially likely to suffer from feelings of social incompetence and low self-worth. Of course, there are a number of questions raised by our and related other studies that will require future research. For example, although in our study we took into account participants’ prior-day mood, it’s still possible that people who were feeling good were more likely to help others in the first place. In support of this idea, research has shown that adolescents who engage in prosocial behavior show increases in self-esteem, but youth with high self-esteem are also more likely to be prosocial (Fu, Padilla-Walker, & Brown, 2017). It will also be important to consider whether helping others is uniquely rewarding during adolescence compared to other developmental periods, like childhood or adulthood.

Prosocial Behavior: A Story of Giver and Receiver

When we talk about the benefits of social support, we often focus on its value for the recipient. The research summarized here suggests that it’s important to also highlight the unique positive effects of providing support, particularly among individuals—old and young—experiencing mental health problems or other psychological difficulties. From an intervention perspective, it may be more feasible to encourage people to engage in acts of kindness than to ensure that everyone receives adequate support, although these particular questions will require further study. Similarly, it will be critical for future research to identify the “key ingredients” that link prosocial behavior to enhanced well-being, as some researchers have already begun to do (e.g., Hill & Howell, 2014; Hui & Kogan, 2017; Weinstein & Ryan, 2010). In the meantime, hold the elevator door for a stranger and see how you feel 😊.


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