Indulge Yourself or Serve Others? It Depends

Research tests the emotional consequences of self- and other-oriented acts

Posted Aug 12, 2019

Congratulations. You’ve just won a $20 gift card. There’s just one catch. This gift card expires at midnight tonight, so use it or lose it. You could spend it on something you’ve been craving for a while, like a massage or a new shirt. Alternatively, you could use it to make someone else happy, like treating them to dinner or donating the cash to charity. What are you going to do?

On the one hand, our media-driven society is constantly telling us that we should indulge our desires. You deserve a break today. Go ahead, you’re worth it. Of course, these messages come from advertisers hoping we’ll treat ourselves by purchasing their products. It’s doubtful that big business has our best interests at heart when it tempts us with its wares.

On the other hand, ample research in social psychology suggests that indulging others will make us happier than indulging ourselves. A number of well-known studies have used just the situation above, in which participants are given a certain amount of money and told to spend it either on themselves or on someone else by the end of the day. Afterward, they respond to a survey intended to measure their current level of happiness, and sometimes also their level of self-worth or sense of social connectedness.

However, we need to take caution in extrapolating from such one-off experiments. Other research has shown that repeatedly giving to others—especially at the expense of neglecting our own needs, can lead to emotional exhaustion. For instance, people who devote themselves to the care of an invalid loved one may experience blunted effects—being just too tired to feel anything.

Most of us live midway between the extremes of constant self-indulgence and unending self-sacrifice. So in our daily lives, what are the emotional consequences of the various self-oriented and other-oriented behaviors we engage in? This is the question explored by psychologists Adam Waytz of Northwestern University and Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Cologne in a recent field experiment.

Since most of the research on the emotional effects of selfish and prosocial behaviors have been conducted in laboratories, it’s unclear how well the results extend to the real world. Instead, Waytz and Hofmann employed a research method known as experience sampling. This approach enables researchers to capture snapshots of people’s thoughts and feelings in real-time by harnessing the technology of smartphones.

The researchers recruited 263 adults to take part in this 10-day study. Each morning, participants received a text message instructing them on a particular behavior they needed to engage in that day. Each evening, they received another text message with a link to an online survey that measured various aspects of subjective well-being. Specifically, respondents reported their feelings of happiness, life satisfaction, and sense of purpose, as well as their feelings of social closeness and social isolation.

The participants were divided into three experimental conditions. In the “treat yourself” condition, they received instructions to do something that would benefit themselves on five of the days. On the other five days, they received no specific instructions, and self-reports at the end of each of these days provided a baseline measure of subjective well-being for each person. In the “moral deed” condition, participants were instructed to do something that would benefit someone else on five days and no specific instructions on the others.

Waytz and Hofmann also included a third condition they called “moral thoughts.” Participants were instructed to think good thoughts on behalf of another person. Most of the people in this condition reported that they accomplished this task by praying for someone. The researchers included this condition because they wanted to see if having moral thoughts alone was sufficient to boost subjective well-being, or if people needed to actually engage in moral deeds to get this effect.

Overall, participants showed a boost in happiness on days when they followed instructions, whether to treat themselves, do a good deed for another person, or think good thoughts about someone else. It remains an open question whether praying for other people does them any good, but the current study shows that it can make you feel better about yourself.

The researchers also found that engaging in either moral deeds or moral thoughts boosts reported levels of sense of virtuousness and social closeness, and they also reduce feelings of social isolation. In contrast, treating yourself had none of these effects. Nevertheless, there was one other positive outcome of the “treat yourself” condition. Specifically, it reduced reported feelings of emotional exhaustion compared with baseline.

In sum, the results suggest a middle path between self-indulgence and giving to others as the best approach to a happy life. As we indulge ourselves, we initially boost our happiness, but that joy quickly wanes. Moreover, our selfish acts can also lead to feelings of social isolation, making us less happy as a result. In contrast, giving to others also boosts happiness, and it makes us feel more socially connected as well. But other-oriented behaviors come at a price, especially when we deny our own needs for too long, as they lead eventually to emotional exhaustion.

Returning to our initial scenario, what will you do with those 20 dollars? Your decision to indulge yourself or give to others should be tempered by your current situation. If you’ve been engaging in a lot of other-serving behaviors recently and you’re feeling emotionally drained as a result, your best option is to indulge yourself. You’ll feel emotionally replenished, so you can get back to doing all those wonderful things you do to make the world a better place.

However, if you’ve already been quite self-indulgent recently, spending another $20 on yourself isn’t going to buy you much additional happiness. And especially if you’ve been feeling sad and lonely, the wise choice is to spend that money on somebody else. The boost in your mood will be worth every penny.

References

Waytz, A., & Hofmann, W. (2019, February 28). Nudging the better angels of our nature: A field experiment on morality and well-being. Emotion. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000588

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