People who feel sad or down are often advised to volunteer or help others to improve their own mood. Indeed, research shows that helping others can increase happiness and feelings of connection. But so does simply interacting with other people.

My colleagues and I wondered if helping others improves people's moods more than just talking to another person.  We predicted that helping would be more satisfying than just having a conversation because helping adds a component that connects people to each other more deeply than just talking, so it might have a bigger impact on mood.

To study this, we conducted experiments in which we asked people to be either more helpful than usual or more social than usual over the course of four weeks. We recruited 754 employed adults located in the United States and instructed them to do three extra things each week by helping or talking to a person of their choice. We then asked them what they did and how they felt about it at the end of each week.

We divided participants into five groups, each with a specific instruction: 1) help someone in person, such as bringing flowers to a romantic partner, 2) help someone online, such as sending a gift to a family member, 3) talk to someone in person, such as a cashier at your local store, 4) talk to someone online such as texting a friend, or 5) track daily activities without changing their routine. Participants could choose with whom to interact.

The Importance of Context

We found that people generally enjoyed both helping and talking to others, but it depended both on how close they were to the person they interacted with, and whether the interaction was in person or online.

To our surprise, participants instructed to help felt just about as happy and connected as those instructed to converse. What really made a difference was how closely the situation approximated in-person communication and how close they felt to the other person. When people interacted in person over video chat, they felt much more connected than when they interacted via social media or text. Talking on the phone was in the middle. Overall, the more "in-person" the interaction, the better it felt. 

In addition, those who interacted with their friends, romantic partners, or family felt more connected than those who interacted with strangers or acquaintances.

The positive feelings that come from helping and talking to others persisted, at least over the course of a week. The sense of happiness and connection did not last forever, though. Positive feelings and connectedness rose at first and then declined after a few weeks. We think that the reason for this might be simple: people got bored doing the same task every week. While talking to someone new or being extra helpful might be exciting at first, it can become a chore if you must do it a specific number of times each week. Our advice? Mix it up.

Does Helping Matter?

Our study found that helping others and talking to them have similar effects on happiness. But this doesn't mean that you should stop helping people. Helping isn't just about the emotional benefit to you, after all. It may also improve someone else's mood and well-being. So go ahead and help someone today. In person, of course.

For Further Reading

Fritz, M. M., Margolis, S., Radošić, N., Revord, J. C., Rosen Kellerman, G., Nieminen, L. R. G., … Lyubomirsky, S. (2023). Examining the social in the prosocial: Episode-level features of social interactions and kind acts predict social connection and well-being. Emotion, 23(8), 2270–2285.

Aknin, L.B., Dunn, E. W., & Norton, M. I. (2012). Happiness runs in a circular motion: Evidence for a positive feedback loop between prosocial spending and happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13, 347–355.

Epley, N., & Schroeder, J. (2014). Mistakenly seeking solitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(5), 1980–1999.

Nina Radošić is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside exploring how feeling socially connected influences happiness.