The idea that helping others is part of a meaningful life has been around for thousands of years. Aristotle wrote that finding happiness and fulfillment is achieved “by loving rather than in being loved.” According to the psychologist Carol Ryff, who reviewed the writings of numerous philosophers throughout history, relationships with others are “a central feature of a positive, well-lived life.”
...helping others is especially crucial to developing a sense of meaning.
Yet today many of us seem to be struggling to find meaning by gathering up achievements, spending so much time at work that we’re cut off from other people.
Are we headed down the wrong path? New research is providing more and more evidence that kind and helpful behavior causes us to feel that our lives are meaningful, and discovering what we can do to reap those benefits.
Relationships and the meaningful life
Often, psychologists have distinguished between two types of well-being: hedonic well-being (a sense of happiness) and eudaimonic well-being (a sense of meaning and purpose). Although happiness and meaning overlap significantly, researchers suspected that helping others is especially crucial to developing a sense of meaning.
A recent study by Roy Baumeister at Florida State University sought to investigate this and other differences between happiness and meaning. In a survey of over 300 participants, the researchers looked for traits and behaviors that were related to happiness (but not meaningfulness) and vice versa. The researchers found that having strong social connections was important for both happiness and meaningfulness. However, helping others in need and identifying oneself as a “giver” in relationships were related to meaning alone.
Baumeister points out that a meaningful life is different for everyone (since the cultural messages we have been exposed to can impact what we see as meaningful). However, the research on meaning in life points to one factor that appears to be important for all of us: developing high-quality relationships.
Does helping promote a sense of meaning?
But does behaving in a kind and helpful way (“prosocially”) actually cause us to feel that our lives have more meaning? While it may seem intuitive that helping others goes along with a meaningful life, it’s possible to imagine a variety of different explanations for this: Perhaps those who feel like their lives have meaning are more motivated to help others, or perhaps some other factor (for example, being religious) causes people to be helpful and experience more meaning in their life.
A recent article published in The Journal of Positive Psychology by Daryl Van Tongeren and his colleagues sought to examine this relationship. In a preliminary study, the researchers asked over 400 participants to report on how frequently they engage in different altruistic behaviors (such as volunteering) and how meaningful their life feels. Participants who were more altruistic reported a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.
In a second study, the researchers sought to assess whether expressing gratitude, which is considered a prosocial emotion, could actually cause participants to report a greater sense of meaning. In this study, some participants wrote letters of gratitude to someone who had impacted their lives, while some participants wrote about other topics. The researchers found that participants who wrote gratitude letters subsequently reported that their lives were more meaningful than did other participants. Importantly, this study addresses the issue of causality; since participants were randomly assigned to write about gratitude or other topics, it appears that expressing a prosocial emotion actually increased their sense of purpose.
Why does helping make life more meaningful?
According to Van Tongeren, engaging in altruistic acts may allow us to find fulfillment because it improves our relationships. To test out this idea, the researchers asked participants about their prosocial behavior, meaning in life, and level of relationship satisfaction. They found that prosocial behavior and meaning in life were linked, and that relationship satisfaction—in other words, the quality of people’s relationships—partially accounted for that link.
Another factor that might come into play is detailed in a 2010 study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. According to this article, when we choose to engage in prosocial actions, it helps to meet our basic psychological needs: for autonomy (feeling that we have freely chosen our actions), competence (feeling that we are good and capable), and relatedness (feeling close to others).
In one study testing this idea, participants were either allowed to choose to give money to someone else in the study, or told by the researchers how much money to give. For participants who freely chose how much to give (although not for participants who were told how much to give), giving more money was related to higher well-being and to feeling that their psychological needs were met. Importantly, that feeling accounted for the link between giving and well-being, suggesting that giving may improve well-being because it helps us meet our psychological needs.
Taken together, these two studies suggest that helping others is beneficial because it fulfills basic human needs—and that altruism may be especially important for strengthening our relationships and connecting us with others.
How to increase your sense of meaning
The research described above suggests that giving helps us feel more connected to others, which imbues our lives with a sense of meaning. Do you want to live a more meaningful life? The suggestions below can help you take the first steps.
You don’t need to begin with grand gestures; even small, everyday behaviors can have an impact on others and on your own sense of well-being. For example, in a study published in Science, spending just five dollars on someone else led to boosts in happiness. The Eliciting Altruism practice includes strategies for starting a habit of kindness and generosity, such as reminding yourself of your connections to others and identifying with individuals who may need your help.
Make your helping count.
It turns out that not all types of giving have the same effects on us. The Making Giving Feel Good practice offers strategies for how to help others in a way that boosts your own sense of happiness and well-being. In particular, helping others can be especially effective when you can see the specific impact that your actions have.
Take time to thank others.
As the research presented here has shown, expressing gratitude towards others can be a prosocial act, too. When others take time to do something nice for you, making them feel appreciated can help build your relationship with them and make your life more meaningful. This exercise offers suggestions for how to write a Gratitude Letter like the ones in Van Tongeren’s study.
Recent research has provided evidence to support the idea that helping others goes hand in hand with meaningfulness. It’s not just that people who have already found their purpose in life enjoy giving back. Instead, helping others can actually create the sense of meaning we’re seeking. Rather than ruminating on what makes our life worthwhile as we work toward burnout, we can find the answer outside ourselves, in human connection.
Elizabeth Hopper is a Ph.D. candidate in Social Psychology at UC Santa Barbara.