When we're having a rough day, many of us tend to treat ourselves to some form of retail therapy, a favorite dessert or going out with friends in hopes of feeling better.
But a new study published in the journal Emotion last week suggests that treating ourselves is no more likely to boost our mood than doing nothing.
Rather, the research found that giving to others or practicing acts of kindness can improve our mood and overall well-being, Dr. Katherine Nelson, assistant professor of psychology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and lead author of the study, told The Huffington Post on Saturday.
"I was not surprised that prosocial behavior led people to feel greater positive emotions, and in turn, greater flourishing," Nelson said about the study.
"One thing that I found very interesting, however, was that when we direct these actions towards ourselves, we see no improvement in positive or negative emotions, nor do we see improvement in psychological flourishing," she added. "I think this is important because people are often encouraged to 'treat themselves' as a way to feel good, yet our findings suggest that the best way to feel happy is to treat someone else instead."
The study involved 473 volunteers who were separated into four groups. Each group had to complete different tasks over a six-week period.
One group was asked to complete acts of kindness to improve the world, such as picking up litter. The second group performed acts of kindness for other people, such as buying a friend a cup of coffee or helping a family member cook dinner.
The third group was instructed to perform acts of kindness for themselves, such as exercising more or taking a day off from work. Finally, the fourth group was the control group that did nothing out of their ordinary activities.
Before and after the six weeks, all participants filled out a questionnaire to assess their psychological, emotional, and social well-being. They also self-reported their positive and negative emotions weekly throughout the study.
“I think this is important because people are often encouraged to 'treat themselves' as a way to feel good, yet our findings suggest that the best way to feel happy is to treat someone else instead.”
The researchers found that participants who performed acts of kindness, whether those acts were for the world or specific people, were more likely to report feeling happy or experience an improvement in mood than those who did the self-focused and neutral behavior.
In fact, those assigned to engage in self-focused behavior did not report any improved well-being or positive emotions, according to the study.
"Doing things for others offers people opportunities to feel greater positive emotions, such as joy, contentment and love," Nelson said. "People could feel greater positive emotions, and in turn psychological health, because by being kind to others, they are nurturing social relationships, or they could feel greater pride in themselves for doing a good deed."
Previous studies have shown that acts of kindness may not only boost your mental health, but also your physical well-being. For instance, separate research suggests that being altruistic can lower your blood pressure and reduce stress.
Dr. Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the new study, told The Huffington Post that performing acts of kindness can activate the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, in the brain -- and it can lead to us feeling like we're serving something larger than the self.
"This is a really important study," said Keltner, author of the forthcoming book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, "for it adds to the mounting evidence showing that focusing on enhancing others' welfare boosts our own well-being, countering a widespread myth that the path to the good life is to look after number one, the self."