The set-point theory of happiness suggests that our level of subjective well-being is determined primarily by heredity and by personality traits ingrained in us early in life and as a result remains relatively constant throughout our lives. Our level of happiness may change transiently in response to life events, but then almost always returns to its baseline level as we habituate to those events and their consequences over time. Habituation, a growing body of evidence now tells us, occurs even to things like career advancement, money, and marriage.
On the other hand, other research suggests a few events—chief among them the unexpected death of a child and repeated bouts of unemployment—seem to reduce our ability to be happy permanently. Yet some studies also suggest that we can also fix our happiness set point permanently higher—by helping others.
According to one such study that analyzed data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Survey, a collection of statistics representing the largest and longest-standing series of observations on happiness in the world, the trait most strongly associated with long-term increases in life satisfaction is, in fact, a persistent commitment to pursuing altruistic goals. That is, the more we focus on compassionate action, on helping others, the happier we seem to become in the long run.
What’s more, according to another study, altruism doesn’t just correlate with an increase in happiness; it actually causes it—at least in the short term. When psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky had students perform five acts of kindness of their choosing per week over the course of six weeks, they reported a significant increase in their levels of happiness relative to a control group of students who didn’t.
But why would creating value for others boost our happiness set-point beyond the point at which our heredity has set it when things like career advancement, money, and marriage don’t? One possibility is that the more value we create for others, the more value we assign ourselves. Helping others, in other words, enhances our self-esteem. On the other hand, if the reason that value creation increases long-term happiness is only because it enhances our self-esteem, then career advancement and wealth accumulation (which often enhance our self-esteem) should increase our long-term happiness set point, too. But they don’t. So maybe creating value for others doesn’t increase our long-term happiness as much because it enhances our self-esteem as it does our sense of purpose.
If our self-esteem determines the value we assign to ourselves (that is, how much we like ourselves), our sense of purpose determines the value we assign to our lives (that is, how significant or important we find our lives to be). And while a healthy self-esteem is well known to be necessary for happiness, increasing it beyond what’s considered “healthy” hasn’t been correlated with further increases in happiness (perhaps because any level of self-love beyond “healthy” strays, almost by definition, into the realm of narcissism). In contrast, the greater the sense of purpose we feel, the happier we seem to become.
Importantly, however, providing help to others seems to increase our well-being only when we provide it of our own free will. If we feel compelled to help, whether by another person or by internally self-generated pressures such as shame or pride, helping others won’t actually increase our well-being. Our sense of well-being may indeed increase in proportion to the help we provide, but only if our desire to provide it is autonomous. Any action we take to help others, in other words, must feel as if it was our idea.
What creates such an autonomous desire to help others? Ironically, often the very same thing that helping others produces: good feelings. In one study, male undergraduates given cookies to briefly improve their moods were found to be subsequently more likely than controls to agree when asked to help with a sham experiment. In another study, subjects who found leftover money in a pay phone—again presumably producing brief elevations in their moods—were subsequently found to be far more likely than controls to help a stranger pick up dropped papers. Other research also suggests that the lower our mood the less likely we are to feel like helping others, even when we think we should.
Which brings us to an ironic truth: we’re the least likely to help others when helping others is the most likely to help us—that is, when we feel defeated by problems or devastated by tragedy. At such times, finding the emotional energy and autonomous desire to focus on someone else’s problems seems not only impossible but also illogical. After all, don’t we need that energy for ourselves?
Though this seems sensible at first glance, such an attitude actually results more from the smallness of thought that accompanies discouragement than from a sober assessment of the best way to recover one’s happiest, most capable self. For just as exercise can actually provide us with energy by forcing us to summon it when we’re feeling tired, helping others can provide us with enthusiasm, encouragement, and even joy by forcing us to summon them when we’re feeling discouraged. “If one lights a fire for others,” wrote Nichiren Daishonin, “one will brighten one’s own way.” Thus, the moments in which we feel happiest aren’t just moments to be enjoyed. They’re also opportunities to increase the frequency and intensity with which we feel them in the future.
Alex Lickerman is an internal medicine physician at the University of Chicago who blogs at Happiness in this World. He is the author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self.