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The Effects of Prosocial and Self-Focused Behaviors on Psychological Flourishing

  • Author(s): Nelson, Sarah Katherine;
  • Advisor(s): Lyubomirsky, Sonja;
  • et al.

When it comes to the pursuit of happiness, popular culture encourages a focus on oneself. Whether engaging in self-focused behaviors is the best approach to foster happiness, however, is short on empirical support. By contrast, substantial evidence suggests that focusing on others (i.e., engaging in prosocial behavior) consistently improves happiness. In the current study, I contrasted the mood- and well-being boosting effects of prosocial behaviors (i.e., doing acts of kindness for others or for the world) and self-oriented behaviors (i.e., doing acts of kindness for oneself) in a 6-week longitudinal experiment. Across a diverse sample of participants (N = 473), I found that two types of prosocial behavior led to greater increases in emotional, psychological, and social well-being than did self-focused and neutral behaviors. In addition, I provide evidence for a mechanism explaining the relative improvements in psychological flourishing among participants assigned to engage in prosocial behaviors—namely, increases in positive emotions and decreases in negative emotions. Moreover, those assigned to engage in self-focused behaviors did not improve psychological flourishing, positive emotions, or negative emotions relative to a neutral control group. The results of this study contribute to a growing body of evidence supporting the benefits of prosocial behavior and challenge the popular perception that focusing on oneself is an optimal method to improve one’s mood. People who are striving to improve their happiness may be tempted to treat themselves; however, results of the current study suggest that they may be more successful if they opt to treat someone else instead.

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