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On the Benefits of Giving Social Support: When, Why, and How Support Providers Gain by Caring for Others

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On the Benefits of Giving Social Support: When, Why, and How Support Providers Gain by Caring for Others

Abstract

People who are socially integrated and have strong social ties live happier, longer lives. The link between social connection and well-being is commonly explained in terms of the benefits of receiving care and support from others. However, the benefits of giving care and support to others for the support provider are often overlooked. We review emerging findings that suggest when, why, and how giving support to others provides benefits to the self. We identify possible mechanisms by which these benefits arise and outline boundary conditions that influence such benefits. To gain a richer understanding of the association between social ties and well-being, an important future research direction is to not only consider the support receiver but also emphasize the support provider.
https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721416686212
Current Directions in Psychological
Science
2017, Vol. 26(2) 109 –113
© The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/0963721416686212
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People thrive when they experience close social bonds and
suffer when they lack social ties. In particular, social con-
nections foster a sense of social support—the perception or
experience of being loved and cared for by others, esteemed
and valued, and part of a social network of mutual assis-
tance and obligations (Wills, 1991)—which is important for
functioning in daily life (Lakey & Orehek, 2011). An implicit
assumption guiding most research on social support is that
the individual receiving care and support benefits whereas
the person providing care and support incurs some cost.
However, recent perspectives have highlighted the potential
benefits of serving as a support provider (Brown, Nesse,
Vinokur, & Smith, 2003; Dunn, Aknin, & Norton, 2008;
Inagaki & Eisenberger, 2012). Giving support, therefore,
may be another way to maintain social connections and
fulfill the need for strong social bonds.
Consider a case in which you decide that you would
like to do something for your partner after a long day at
work. You know that she enjoys a pasta dish that you
cook, and you decide to make it for her. Most social-
support research has focused on the potential benefits
for your partner while overlooking the benefits to you,
the support giver. However, by doing something for
someone else, you may also benefit yourself.
In line with this example, an accumulating body of
research suggests that giving social support to others,
rather than costing the giver, may instead lead to benefits
for the giver. In the present article, we highlight new
findings detailing when, why, and how support providers
benefit from giving. We discuss two boundary conditions
regarding when giving support is beneficial. Finally,
because this is a relatively new, emerging literature, we
discuss implications of the present perspective and direc-
tions for future research.
Giving Social Support
Why might giving to others be beneficial? One answer to
this question is derived from the observation that humans
have a natural capacity to care for, nurture, and protect
others, especially during times of need (Bowlby, 1988).
Babies are born dependent on others and, as a conse-
quence, require intense care at the beginning of life.
Processes that promote caring for offspring may extend
686212CDPXXX10.1177/0963721416686212Inagaki, OrehekBenefits of Giving Social Support
research-article2017
Corresponding Authors:
Tristen K. Inagaki, Department of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh,
3101 Sennott Square, 210 S. Bouquet St., Pittsburgh, PA 15260
E-mail: inagaki@pitt.edu
Edward Orehek, Department of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh,
3105 Sennott Square, 210 S. Bouquet St., Pittsburgh, PA 15260
E-mail: orehek@pitt.edu
On the Benefits of Giving Social Support:
When, Why, and How Support Providers
Gain by Caring for Others
Tristen K. Inagaki and Edward Orehek
Department of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh
Abstract
People who are socially integrated and have strong social ties live happier, longer lives. The link between social
connection and well-being is commonly explained in terms of the benefits of receiving care and support from others.
However, the benefits of giving care and support to others for the support provider are often overlooked. We review
emerging findings that suggest when, why, and how giving support to others provides benefits to the self. We identify
possible mechanisms by which these benefits arise and outline boundary conditions that influence such benefits.
To gain a richer understanding of the association between social ties and well-being, an important future research
direction is to not only consider the support receiver but also emphasize the support provider.
Keywords
social support, support provider, caregiving, social integration, well-being
110 Inagaki, Orehek
to promote caring for others such as friends, romantic
partners, and other family members (Brown & Brown,
2015; Feeney & Collins, 2001; Preston, 2013; Taylor etal.,
2000). From this perspective, caring for others is not just
the “right thing to do” but is critical to our species’ sur-
vival. Mechanisms should therefore be in place to (a)
reinforce and motivate giving behavior and also (b)
reduce social withdrawal or stress-related responding to
facilitate effective care during times of need (Inagaki
etal., 2016). That is, the act of giving to others may feel
good and may reduce stress responses for the support
provider.
Giving support is rewarding
Spending money on others (vs. oneself) leads to greater
positive affect (Aknin etal., 2013), and doing nice things
for others (vs. oneself) leads to increases in one’s happi-
ness and sense of belonging to a social group (Nelson,
Layous, Cole, & Lyubomirsky, 2016). These effects extend
to young children. For example, giving a treat to a pup-
pet (vs. receiving a treat) leads to increased displays of
happiness in children under 2 years old (Aknin, Hamlin,
& Dunn, 2012). Giving to others is also associated with
favorable social outcomes including increased self-
esteem (Piferi & Lawler, 2006), self-worth (Gruenewald,
Liao, & Seeman, 2012), and feelings of social connection
with the recipient (Inagaki & Eisenberger, 2012).
Caring for others seems to rely on neural regions asso-
ciated with pleasure and reward. Animals’ care for off-
spring is associated with increased activity in the ventral
striatum (VS; Lonstein, Simmons, Swann, & Stern, 1997)
and septal area (SA; Fleischer & Slotnick, 1978). Consis-
tent with these findings, damage to either the VS or the
SA significantly reduces effective parental care in rats
(Fleischer & Slotnick, 1978; Hansen, 1994). In humans,
giving support activates these same brain regions. The
first experimental demonstration of support-related activ-
ity in these brain regions among human participants
showed that giving support by holding a romantic part-
ner’s arm as he endured uncomfortable shocks (vs. not
giving support) activated both the VS and the SA (Inagaki
& Eisenberger, 2012). In addition, giving money to chari-
ties (Moll etal., 2006) and to close others activates the VS
more than winning money for oneself (Telzer, Fuligni,
Lieberman, & Galván, 2014). Taken together, this body of
work points to reward-related psychological and neuro-
biological mechanisms as one potential driver underlying
the benefits of giving support.
Giving support is stress reducing
Findings from both animals and humans suggest that
giving care to others inhibits stress responses, which
facilitates care during times of need (Taylor etal., 2000).
Thus, another route by which giving support may lead to
benefits for the support provider is by reducing social
withdrawal or stress-related responding (Inagaki et al.,
2016; Poulin, Brown, Dillard, & Smith, 2013). For exam-
ple, female macaques who gave more (vs. less) support
by grooming others displayed lower stress levels (Shutt,
MacLarnon, Heistermann, & Semple, 2007) and fewer
anxiety-related behaviors (self-scratching, self-grooming,
aggressive actions; Aureli & Yates, 2010).
In humans, self-reported support giving is associated
with reduced stress-related neural activity in the amyg-
dala, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, and the anterior
insula in response to a social stressor (Inagaki et al.,
2016). In addition, SA activity while participants give sup-
port (vs. do not give support) is associated with less
amygdala activity (Inagaki & Eisenberger, 2012). These
results suggest that greater activity in one of the regions
critical for parental care, the SA, is associated with less
stress-related responding.
In the first experimental manipulation of giving sup-
port prior to a stressor, writing a supportive note to a
friend in need (vs. writing about a neutral topic) caused
reductions in stress-related responding to a psychosocial
stressor (Inagaki & Eisenberger, 2016). Consistent with
these findings, an intervention outside the lab showed
that being randomly assigned to give money to others
(vs. spend money on oneself) led to lower resting blood
pressure after the intervention (Whillans, Dunn, Sandstrom,
Dickerson, & Madden, 2016). Together, the experimental
findings suggest that another way giving to others bene-
fits the provider is by reducing stress.
Boundary Conditions: When Is Giving
Beneficial?
Whether giving support leads to beneficial outcomes
should depend on two factors: (a) whether an individual
freely chooses to give support and (b) whether she or he
thinks the support is effective (Orehek, in press). Provid-
ing initial support for the first factor, participants who
freely chose to give support experienced greater well-
being, such as increased positive affect and self-esteem,
whereas participants without a choice did not experience
benefits (Weinstein & Ryan, 2010). Additional research is
needed to investigate whether free choice influences
neural processes underlying support giving. Support for
the second factor can be gleaned from neural evidence,
which shows that individuals who report their support
giving as more effective experience greater rewards, as
indexed by greater neural activity in both the VS and the
SA in response to giving support (Inagaki & Eisenberger,
2012). The perceived effectiveness of giving support can
also be increased when the support recipient appreciates
Benefits of Giving Social Support 111
or recognizes the support provided (Orehek & Forest,
2016). These findings provide initial evidence that the
two proposed factors help explain when giving support
produces benefits for the provider.
Although no experimental studies have examined
whether choice and perceived effectiveness are impor-
tant for the stress-reducing effects of giving support,
clues can be gleaned from research on caregiver burden.
Caregivers often feel forced to care for loved ones out of
obligation and give chronic care they perceive as ineffec-
tive (Adelman, Tmanova, Delgado, Dion, & Lachs, 2014).
Therefore, chronic caregiving often violates the two
parameters under which giving support is proposed to
lead to beneficial outcomes, first by removing the choice
to give and second by decreasing the perception that
care is effective (e.g., in light of the deterioration of a
care recipient). Research has shown that caregiving is
often associated with increased stress (Adelman et al.,
2014), which suggests that choice and effectiveness may
indeed be necessary conditions for giving support to
reduce stress in the support provider. In addition, choice
and effectiveness, among other factors (e.g., increased
financial strain), may explain why caregiving is some-
times associated with stress. Future research is needed to
more fully investigate the roles of choice and effective-
ness in influencing the link between support giving and
stress and to explore the potential for additional bound-
ary conditions.
Implications and Future Directions
The research reviewed above provides initial evidence
regarding when, why, and how giving support is bene-
ficial for the support provider. In addition to the short-
term benefits reviewed here, we expect benefits of
giving support to extend to long-term well-being.
Indeed, large-scale analyses of human social ties have
demonstrated remarkable health-promotion effects: Par-
enthood (Agerbo, Mortensen, & Munk-Olsen, 2012),
marriage (Carr & Springer, 2010), and social integration
(Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010) are all robustly
associated with greater longevity. Whereas it has been
assumed that social ties increase longevity via the care
and support received from these relationships, the cur-
rent perspective suggests that an underexplored factor in
the social ties–longevity linkage is the care given to oth-
ers. Others have shown that giving support is also linked
to longevity (Allman, Rosin, Kumar, & Hasenstaub, 1988;
Brown etal., 2003). Refocusing attention on when, why,
and how the individual giving support benefits from
supportive interactions may illuminate new avenues for
intervening in the lives of those who suffer from a lack
of social connections or support.
Moving forward, research should outline the types of
actions that support givers employ, as well as whether
what they do, whom they do it for, and why they do it
influence the personal benefits they experience. For
instance, when does giving support to others cease to be
good for long-term health, as often observed among
chronic caregivers, and who benefits most from giving to
others? In addition to benefitting the self, how does giv-
ing support strengthen existing social relationships or
help form new social bonds? How does the specific per-
son to whom support is given and that person’s response
influence benefits and costs to the support provider?
Would knowing that one’s support was ineffective alter
the stress-reducing effects of giving support (Inagaki &
Eisenberger, 2016; Whillans etal., 2016)? Finally, others
have theorized that regions such as the orbitofrontal cor-
tex are important for giving support (see the Recom-
mended Readings for a full overview) and should be
explored further.
Giving social support leads to emotional, physical,
and social benefits that are most likely to occur when
giving is freely chosen and is perceived to be effective.
These findings fit with the notion that people have a
natural inclination to care for others and flourish when
they have strong social ties. A new focus on the individ-
ual giving support, in addition to continuing work on the
individual receiving support, will help paint a more com-
plete picture as to when, why, and how social support is
good for health and well-being and, ultimately, may help
us harness a natural human tendency in order to benefit
social relationships.
Recommended Reading
Brown, S. L., & Brown, R. M. (2015). (See References). A com-
prehensive review of the neurobiological mechanisms
associated with giving support and its effects on physical
health.
Inagaki, T. K., Byrne Haltom, K. E., Suzuki, S., Jevtic, I.,
Hornstein, E., Bower, J. E., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2016). (See
References). A representative study that illustrates original
neuroimaging research about giving support.
Lakey, B., & Orehek, E. (2011). Relational regulation theory:
A new approach to explain the link between perceived
social support and mental health. Psychological Review,
118, 482–495. A recent theory on social-support processes
that emphasizes relational regulation of affect and cogni-
tion in everyday conversations and shared activities; espe-
cially relevant to the current article, it suggests that partners
often initiate social interaction as a way of regulating their
partner’s affect.
Preston, S. D. (2013). (See References). A detailed review of
the neural regions associated with parental care in animals
and their relevance for extreme acts of altruism, a behavior
related to support giving.
112 Inagaki, Orehek
Uchino, B. N. (2009). Understanding the links between social
support and physical health: A life-span perspective with
emphasis on the separability of perceived and received
support. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, 236–255.
A developmental perspective on the link between social
support and health.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with
respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.
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... They derive a sense of personal importance, esteem, competence, control, value, and belongingness from their ability to help others (Inagaki & Orehek, 2017;Orehek, in press;. Thus, people evaluate themselves in the same way they evaluate others: They evaluate themselves according to their perceived instrumentality to others. ...
... Being instrumental to others should increase both the felt closeness to the person whom one has helped and increase one's own sense of self-worth. Serving as an instrumental means to other people provides benefits to the support provider and enhances the relationship between the support provider and recipient (Inagaki & Orehek, 2017). For example, participants who performed a favor for someone they previously had a negative or neutral impression of came to like that person more (Jecker & Landy, 1969). ...
... Our approach postulates that two conditions must be met in order for the person to experience the benefits of serving as a means (see also Inagaki & Orehek, 2017;Orehek, in press;. First, serving as a means should benefit the helper if s/he feels instrumental as a result. ...
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Interpersonal relationships and goal pursuit are intimately interconnected. In the present paper, we present a people-as-means perspective on relationships. According to this perspective, people serve as means to goals—helping other people to reach their goals in a variety of ways, such as by contributing their time, lending their knowledge, skills, and resources, and providing emotional support and encouragement. Because people serve as means to goals, we propose that considering relationship processes in terms of the principles of goal pursuit can provide novel and important insights into the ways that people think, feel, and behave in these interpersonal contexts. We describe the principles of means-goals relations, review evidence for each principle involving people as means, and discuss implications of our approach for relationship formation, maintenance, and dissolution.
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... There have been a number of reports of the general benefits of helping behavior for the helper (Weinstein & Ryan, 2010;Momatz, Ibrahim & Hamid, 2014;Ingaki & Orehek, 2017), but relatively little research has been conducted on the potential benefits of providing specifically autonomy support for the provider of that support. While less is known about the effects of autonomy support on the support provider, several studies have examined potential effects. ...
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... With regard to social support, we assessed both practical and informational-emotional support; in addition, we focused not only on received support but also on given social support. Recent studies, in fact, have highlighted the potential benefits of serving as a support provider (Inagaki & Orehek, 2017). As for individual well-being, we investigated both traditional indicators, such as satisfaction with life and presence of depressive symptoms, and generativity. ...
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Purpose Considering work and family responsibility has become an important issue due to changes in the lives of people, understanding work and family responsibilities is essential for organizations in assisting employees to increase their well-being. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to find the impact of perceived organizational support (POS) on work–family facilitation (WFF) and work–family conflict (WFC) and eventually on employee well-being. Design/methodology/approach A survey questionnaire is administered to 1,340 employees of Chinese enterprises. Structural equation modeling is used to test the model fit. Findings Results of this study indicate a significant positive relationship between POS and WFF and significant negative relation between POS and WFC. Results of this paper also indicate that WFF and WFC partially mediate the relationship between POS and employee well-being. Originality/value Over the past two decades, the extent of research on work–family literature has been increased. Most of the work–family research works have been conducted in the Western countries. Very little is known about whether these results are applicable to Eastern societies. This study is extended to focus on work–family literature by drawing a sample from different regions of China. The findings of this study may provide a good understanding of WFC and WFF for Chinese employees. This study stresses the importance of providing organizational support to increase the well-being of employees.
... Indeed, people often want to be considered instrumental to another person's goals. In the context of caring relationships, people strive to be instrumental to their partners and experience positive feelings of social connection (Inagaki & Eisenberger, 2012), self-esteem (Piferi & Lawler, 2006), and self-worth (Gruenewald, Liao, & Seeman, 2012) when they are able to be instrumental (Inagaki & Orehek, 2017). In addition, when they fail to be instrumental, people can feel decreased positive affect (Williamson, Clark, Pegalis, & Behan, 1996). ...
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... Parent-child support exchanges have implications for aging parents' well-being. Providing support to middle-aged children is often emotionally rewarding for aging parents, whereas receiving support is often associated with poorer well-being (An & Cooney, 2006;Inagaki & Orehek, 2017;Thomas, 2010). Nevertheless, these associations may vary by the parents' disabilities (Bangerter, Kim, Zarit, Birditt, & Fingerman, 2015;Djundeva et al., 2015). ...
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