Helping and happiness: A review and guide for public policy
Lara B. Aknin
Simon Fraser University
Ashley V. Whillans
Harvard Business School
Perhaps one of the most reaffirming findings to emerge over the past several decades is that
humans not only engage in generous behavior, they also appear to experience pleasure from
doing so. Yet not all acts of helping lead to greater happiness. Here, we review the growing body
of evidence showing that people engage in a wide array of prosocial behaviors (e.g., charitable
giving, volunteering, blood/organ donation, offering advice, food sharing) which can promote
positive emotions. Then, using Self-Determination Theory, a foundational theory of human
motivation, we consider when and how generous actions are most likely to boost the helper’s
happiness – and when they are not. Finally, we leverage these insights to consider how public
policy and organizations can apply this information to make prosocial action more emotionally
rewarding for citizens and employees alike.
In 2009, Jamaican runner Usain Bolt set the world record for the fastest 100-meter race
with a time of 9.58 seconds. While impressive, this incredible feat lags well behind the speed of
other animals, such as the cheetah who can typically cover 100-meters in less than six seconds.
Jackrabbits, greyhounds, and even blue wildebeests can also run at speeds twice as fast as the
average person. Simply put, humans are not the fastest or most physically capable species. Yet
human beings dominate the planet (Harari, 2014). How can this be?
One possibility is that humans have evolved a unique proclivity to care for and cooperate
with one another (Henrich & Henrich, 2007), and that the immense strength of our social
relationships are facilitated by prosocial actions (Feeney & Collins, 2003). Supporting this
possibility, donation records indicate that humans are extraordinarily generous, giving a variety
of costly resources including their time, money, expertise, and organs to other people even when
they do not expect reciprocation (Brethel-Haurwitz & Marsh, 2014; Piliavin & Callero, 1991).
These findings challenge the narrative that humans are driven by pure self-interest (Miller, 1999)
and suggest instead that people are also deeply motivated to help others (e.g., Grant, 2013).
In fact, people not only routinely help others but a growing body of research indicates that
they can derive pleasure from doing so (Aknin, Whillans, Norton, & Dunn, 2019; Crocker,
Canevello & Brown, 2017; Curry et al., 2018; Dunn, Aknin & Norton, 2014). In the present
paper, we seek to provide a balanced review of the evidence demonstrating that helping behavior
can lead to positive emotions for the giver. We also shed light on when the emotional rewards of
giving are most likely to materialize in hopes that policy makers are able to capitalize on these
insights to promote greater happiness and in turn, bolster and sustain increased generosity.
Our focus on subjective well-being (what many refer to as “happiness”) as a valuable
outcome of interest reflects the large and accumulating body of evidence documenting the
benefits of positive emotions for individuals and society. Consistent with the literature, we define
subjective well-being as higher positive affect, lower negative affect, and higher life satisfaction
(Diener, 1984), and we use several terms reflecting greater well-being interchangeably (e.g.,
enjoyment, happiness, positive emotions, and satisfaction). People around the world report that
happiness is “extraordinarily important” (Diener & Oishi, 2000) and its pursuit motivates
numerous consequential decisions – from whom to marry, to what career path to pursue, as well
as how to spend one’s leisure time and disposable income (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2019).
A widespread interest in promoting well-being seems justified when recognizing that
people who frequently experience higher levels of positive affect also enjoy a host of beneficial
outcomes, such as greater physical health, lower mortality risk, greater likeability, more positive
social relationships, higher productivity, as well as greater work place and marital success (see
Chida & Steptoe, 2008; Howell, Kern & Lyubomirsky, 2007; Kushlev et al., 2020;
Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005 for meta-analytic reviews). In fact, happiness is not just an
outcome of success – but a key causal predictor of it (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005; Walsh, Boehm
& Lyubomirsky, 2018). Consistent with this idea, firms with happier employees experience
greater productivity, customer satisfaction, and lower employee turnover (Krekel, Ward & De
Neve, 2019). Thus, while happiness and well-being indicators were initially overlooked by many
governments and workplaces in favor of financial metrics like Gross Domestic Product (the
monetary value of the goods and services produced in a country), well-being has now become a
policy focus for many as its value has become clearer in recent decades (Macchia & Whillans,
2019; Sachs, 2018; Stiglitz, Sen & Fitoussi, 2009; Tay, Chan, & Diener, 2014).
In reviewing the evidence of when and how helping leads to happiness for the giver, we
define helping as any voluntary action that assists another person. Consequently, we use the
terms helping, prosocial behavior, kindness, and generosity interchangeably (Batson & Powell,
2003; Eisenberg & Spinrad, 2014; Hammond & Drummond, 2019; Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin &
Schroeder, 2005). This definition encapsulates the large body of work on charitable donations
and volunteering, which includes both formal volunteering to non-profit organizations as well as
the provision of informal assistance between individuals. This definition also includes relatively
understudied forms of generous actions, such as advice giving, food sharing, blood and organ
donation. We include a wide array of diverse helping behaviors to reveal both the divergent ways
in which people help one another and to underscore the underlying theoretical similarities in
when and how giving leads to happiness. We discuss survey data as well as lab and field
experiments, placing greater emphasis on large samples and pre-registered designs when
Because most of us have had positive personal experiences with helping other people, and
because there is a growing body of research linking helping to happiness, it is tempting to
assume that any and all forms of helping improve emotional well-being for the benefactor. Yet,
research indicates that this simple message is incomplete. There are critical factors that predict
whether and when helping promotes happiness (Aknin et al., 2019; Crocker et al., 2017; Dunn,
Aknin & Norton, 2014; Dunn, Whillans, Norton & Aknin, 2020). Therefore, our goal in this
paper is to illustrate when helping increases happiness (and when it does not) so that policy
makers may direct their finite resources towards facilitating helping opportunities that are most
likely to create the largest emotional benefit. Then, we offer suggestions for how to do so.
This paper proceeds as follows. In the first section, we summarize the literature on helping
and happiness. As noted above, this summary casts a wider net than many other review papers by
including food sharing, advice giving, as well as blood and organ donation to demonstrate the
consistent emotional outcomes across a variety of prosocial behaviors. Yet, as readers will soon
see, while the relationship between helping and happiness is generally positive, it is far from
perfect, indicating that details matter. Therefore, in the second section of the paper, we describe
which details matter by introducing the Self-Determination Theory (SDT; Ryan & Deci, 2000) –
a widely used and fundamental theory of human motivation – as a conceptual framework with
great explanatory power. This theory identifies three key factors: autonomy (feelings of personal
choice), competence (feelings of efficacy and ability), and relatedness (feelings of connection to
others) to illuminate when helping leads to happiness for the actor and when it does not. Then, in
the final section of the paper, we consider how the motives identified by SDT can be amplified
and provide examples of how to do so in three familiar and societally relevant contexts—
taxation, blood donation, and workplace helping— to assist governmental and organizational
policy makers in optimizing the emotional rewards of prosocial action.
Helping and Happiness: An Overview
People help others in many ways. Most acts involve sharing a resource – one’s money,
time, insight, food, and blood or organs – with another person. While the specific commodity
may vary, a general pattern emerges from the data: helping is typically associated with and can
lead to higher levels of happiness for the helper (Curry et al., 2018 for a meta-analysis). Below
we provide a summary of the correlational and experimental work demonstrating that engaging
in a range of generous actions for the benefit of others leads to emotional rewards.
Many large national and international surveys ask respondents to report on their generous
behavior, such as giving time and money to charity, which allows researchers to assess the
relationship between helping and happiness in large, representative samples. With few
exceptions, most surveys find that using one’s financial resources to help others is associated
with greater happiness. In one early study, a nationally representative sample of over 632
Americans was asked to report their general happiness and indicate approximately how much
money they spend on themselves and other people (Dunn, Aknin & Norton, 2008). Specifically,
participants reported how much money they spent in a typical month on bills, expenses, and gifts
for themselves, allowing researchers to calculate an index of personal spending. Similarly,
participants reported how much money they spent in a typical month on gifts for other people
and donations to charity, allowing researchers to calculate an index of prosocial spending. Then,
the two spending indices were used to predict well-being. Analyses revealed that people who
spent more on others via prosocial spending reported greater overall happiness. How much
people spent on themselves was unrelated to their happiness reports (Dunn et al., 2008).
Similar findings have been observed using other research methods and in large
international samples. Data from the Gallup World Poll (GWP) – the largest and most
representative snapshot of humans around the globe – support the widespread association
between generous spending and happiness. Responses from over one million respondents
indicates that donating money to charity in the past month is associated with greater life
satisfaction in most countries around the world (Aknin, Dunn, Norton & Whillans, 2019;
Helliwell, Huang & Wang, 2017). In fact, financial generosity is one of the top six predictors of
well-being worldwide (Helliwell et al., 2017; Helliwell, Huang, Wang & Norton, 2020) and
some analyses of the GWP data suggest that donating to charity in the past month has an
equivalent impact on happiness as nearly doubling one’s household income (Aknin et al., 2013).
Research has also gone beyond self-reported happiness to show that generous actions are
linked to physiological changes associated with pleasure. For instance, neuroscientists scanned
the brains of 19 female American students who were endowed with $100 and asked to make
financial decisions in an fMRI scanner. These students’ brains displayed increased activation in
areas typically associated with pleasure and reward (i.e. the ventral striatum and frontal cortex)
when making decisions that directed money to a local charity (Harbaugh et al., 2006). Brain
activation in pleasure centers was especially pronounced when donations were voluntary (as
opposed to mandatory in tax-like transfers) – a point to which we will return to later.
A number of experiments reveal that generous spending is not only associated with
happiness – it leads to happiness. In one of the earliest studies to investigate this question,
researchers recruited a small sample of 46 students on a Canadian university campus in the
morning hours. Each student was randomly assigned to receive a monetary amount (either $5 or
$20 Canadian dollars) and a spending direction (either to spend the money on themselves or
someone else by 5pm that day; Dunn et al., 2008). People were contacted by phone in the
evening to report their happiness that day by a researcher unaware of their endowment and
spending directions. Students assigned to spend money on others reported feeling significantly
happier than those assigned to spend money on themselves, regardless of whether they spent $5
New research makes use of experiments with much larger samples, which provide more
reliable and precise information (Fraley & Vazire, 2014). A few experiments are “pre-
registered,” meaning that researchers publicly document their predictions, study methods, and
analyses before conducting the study; this procedure helps to minimize the risk that researchers
are tempted to flexibly interpret their data to confirm their predictions (Nosek, Ebersole,
DeHaven & Mellor, 2018; Nosek et al., 2019). Applying these current best practices and highest
standards for evidentiary value, some of our own research demonstrates that spending money on
others leads to greater happiness (Aknin, Dunn, Proulx, Lok & Norton, 2020).
In one study, we recruited 712 students across two universities and, after completing a
short questionnaire, told them that they had earned a small additional payment of $2.50 Canadian
dollars that they could use to buy a goody-bag filled with juice or treats valued at $3. Critically,
each participant was randomly assigned to a spending condition. Half of the participants were
assigned to the personal spending condition where they were told that if they bought a goody-
bag it was for them, and it would be available for collection at the end of the experiment. The
other half of the participants were assigned to the prosocial spending condition where they were
told that if they bought a goody-bag it was for charity, and it would be donated to a sick child at
a local children’s hospital at the end of the experiment. All participants were given a choice of
what to buy (two chocolate bars, two cans of juice, or one of each) and the possibility to “opt-
out” of purchasing a goody-bag, which meant that participants could claim the cash for
themselves a few months later. This final option provided participants with the chance to decline
engaging in a generous action, which appears to be critical for experiencing joy from giving – an
important detail that we unpack later. Despite providing participants with the choice to claim the
cash, nearly all participants chose to buy a goody-bag.
When participants rated their current emotion right after their purchase, participants in
the prosocial spending condition (those that spent money on others) reported feeling significantly
happier than those who spent money on themselves (Aknin et al., 2020; see also Whillans et al.,
2019). The happiness benefits observed in this study were roughly similar to other well-
established predictors of happiness, such as marital status (Helliwell & Putnam, 2004) and
income (Stevenson & Wolfers, 2013). Yet, the strength of this effect depends on the methods
used (Aknin et al., 2020). People experienced greater emotional benefits from actually
participating in an act of helping in the lab as opposed to simply thinking about doing so.
In addition to money, people are also generous with their time. Formally, Americans
alone provided nearly 7 billion hours or 800,000 years to serve non-profit organizations in 2018
(National Service Research, 2018), and evidence suggests that volunteering is also associated
with greater happiness. For instance, responses from approximately 29,000 Americans across 29
states revealed that people who volunteered more reported higher levels of happiness, even when
controlling for a number of important other personal differences that could explain this
relationship, such as demographic and socio-economic factors (Borgonovi, 2008).
These well-being benefits do not appear to be confined to the United States. When Haski-
Leventhal (2009) examined data from over 30,000 people across 12 countries in the 2007 Survey
of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe, analyses demonstrated that volunteers reported
significantly higher levels of life satisfaction than non-volunteers (see also Musick & Wilson,
2003). More recently, responses from over one million people surveyed as part of the Gallup
World Poll (GWP) between 2009-2017 showed that formal volunteering was associated with
higher life satisfaction in most countries (Aknin, Whillans, Norton & Dunn, 2019).
Beyond volunteering one’s time to support non-profit organizations, people also can use
their time to help other people by engaging in daily acts of kindness toward one another. In the
academic literature these spontaneous acts of generosity that occur between people are known as
Random Acts of Kindness (RAK). These behaviors can manifest in small commonplace actions,
such as holding the door open for a stranger or calling a friend to say hello. Survey and
experimental evidence suggest that small acts of kindness can have emotional rewards for the
actor (e.g., Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005). For example, one survey conducted with
175 Japanese college students found that engaging in a higher number of kind behaviors was
associated with greater happiness (Otake, Shimai, Tanaka-Matsumi, Otsui & Fredrickson, 2006).
More recently, a large online experiment conducted over a six-week period with a diverse
sample of nearly 500 participants examined the consequences of doing kind acts for others, the
world/humanity, and oneself compared to a control condition (Nelson, Layous, Cole &
Lyubormirsky, 2016). Participants assigned to engage in both forms of other-focused generosity
– helping another person or humanity – reported greater positive emotions and, in turn, greater
psychological flourishing over time. Meanwhile, participants assigned to complete kind acts
directed towards themselves showed no improvements relative to the control group (Nelson et
Giving blood, organs, and tissue
In addition to providing time and money, which are two of the most commonly shared
resources, people sometimes help in other (and often, more challenging) ways. Thousands of
people give “of themselves” by donating blood, organs and bone marrow each year (Brethel-
Haurwitz & Marsh 2014; Hammond, 2016; Koo & Fishbach, 2016; Red Cross). Such donations
can be costly, painful, and risky. At best, donors sacrifice their time for testing and donation
while facing mild discomfort from vein puncture, bruising, and generalized weakness (Piliavin,
Callero & Evans, 1982). At worst, donors experience moderate to high levels of pain,
complications during recovery, and even the non-trivial risk of injury or death (Bortin &
Buckner, 1983; Hirsch, 1982). Yet, people donate blood and tissue to help an “unnamed
stranger” (Titmuss, 1971, p. 239) and seem to experience well-being from doing so.
For instance, Brethel-Haurwitz and Marsh (2014) found evidence that geographical
differences in self-reported well-being were associated with altruistic kidney donation in the
United States. Specifically, state-wide well-being predicted the distribution of living organ
donations among 955 donors identified by a government agency, even while controlling for
alternative factors that could account for this relationship, such as wealth and religiosity. Further
evidence comes from a sample of over 340 people identified from the National Marrow Donor
Program. In this survey, individuals who donated bone marrow to strangers reported that the
donation was a positive experience and that they were happy they did it (Switzer, Simmons &
Dew, 1996; see Maple, Chilcot, Weinman, & Mamode, 2017 for evidence that donors report
satisfaction with their living kidney donation but no measurable increase in life satisfaction at 3-
and 12-months post-operation). Donors reported the most positive reaction (i.e. lower
ambivalence about donating and fewer post-donation negative feelings) when they felt like their
donation was impactful and likely to help the recipient’s chances of survival (Switzer et al.,
Research on blood donations displays a similar pattern. In several studies, including some
studies examining upwards of 1,800 donation experiences, blood donors reported higher levels of
well-being after donating (e.g., Piliavin et al., 1982; Zillmer, Glidden, Honaker & Meyer, 1989)
and at higher levels than a comparison group of demographically similar non-donors (Hinrichs et
al., 2008; Sojka & Sojka, 2003). In fact, research suggests that the altruistic nature of these
activities could minimize the experience of pain. In one recent study with 66 adults recruited at
hospitals and blood donation stations in China, people reported less intense pain from vein
puncture when blood was drawn for the purpose of post-earthquake medical use than when blood
was drawn for personal medical tests (Wang, Ge, Zhang, Wang & Xie, 2019). Together these
results provide evidence that even physically costly forms of helping behavior—giving of one’s
blood and organs—is linked to greater happiness.
People also share information in the form of wisdom or advice. Although we are not
aware of any research directly assessing the emotional consequences of giving advice, existing
data are consistent with the notion that advice-giving leads to greater well-being. Several
experiments, including large, pre-registered field studies with thousands of middle-school
youths, demonstrate that giving advice has beneficial consequences. For instance, students in 6-
8th grade randomly assigned to give studying tips to 4th grade students once a week for three
weeks spent more time working toward their academic goals than students who received advice
from their teacher once a week for three weeks (Eskreis-Winkler, Fishbach & Duckworth, 2018).
Another experiment found that students assigned to give advice outperformed their peers who
did not give advice in math and another selected course (Eskreis-Winkler, Milkman, Gromet &
Duckworth, 2019). Thus, sharing one’s skills also appears to benefit the helper and these benefits
appear to emerge from subjective feelings of confidence and capability. When giving advice,
people tend to feel a greater sense of competence which motivates them to achieve their goals
(Eskreis-Winkler et al., 2018). Consistent with SDT, we suspect that this same sense of increased
competence also boosts the helper’s well-being too.
Food is another resource that people share with one another. Food may be a unique
commodity in that it often requires social coordination to secure and distribute. Our human
ancestors likely worked together to enhance their safety and skill when hunting, and would later
share their catch before the meat would spoil. As a result, food sharing may have helped
socialize humans for greater cooperation because shared consumption habits require that people
to attend to the needs of others (DeBacker, Fisher, Poels & Ponnet, 2015). Consistent with this
proposition, responses from nearly 500 students in Belgium link the frequency of food sharing
such as eating shared, family style meals with self-reported altruistic behavior in adulthood
(DeBacker et al., 2015). Parallel findings have been documented in relatively large, pre-
registered experiments. Strangers paired for a negotiation task were more cooperative and faster
to agree upon a decision after sharing a communal plate of food than after eating identical food
in individual portions (Woolley & Fishbach, 2019). In turn, sharing food leads to emotional
rewards. In one small experiment, 20 toddlers around the age of 22-months were provided with
eight edible treats and asked to share a few with a puppet in subsequent study phases. Video
recordings of the toddlers’ interactions were later coded for facial expressions of happiness.
Analyses revealed that children smiled more when giving an edible treat to a puppet than when
receiving edible treats themselves, suggesting that the emotional rewards of giving are detectable
early in childhood (Aknin, Hamlin & Dunn, 2012; see also Aknin, Broesch, Van de Vondervoort
& Hamlin, 2015; Song Broekhuizen & Dubas, 2020).
Understanding Inconsistencies through Self-Determination Theory
The evidence reviewed above is often (inaccurately) used to suggest that helping others
always leads to happiness – but, as we have alluded to above, the emotional rewards are not
uniform or guaranteed. The data include some mixed and contrary findings, which suggest
important caveats. Therefore, in this section of the paper, we further discuss the Self-
Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and use it as a theoretical framework for
understanding when kindness promotes well-being and, equally as important, when it does not or
has less of an emotional benefit. This discussion has particular policy relevance. If decision
makers incorrectly assume that equivalent happiness boosts are experienced after all forms of
generous actions, this could result in a resource loss as people, organizations, and the
government choose to invest in any form of prosocial behavior. Theoretical guidance can be used
to assist in refining prosocial investments so that helpers experience greater emotional rewards
and fewer costs. This section proceeds as follows. First, we provide a brief introduction to Self-
Determination Theory (SDT; Ryan & Deci, 2000) and highlight its explanatory value. Then, we
revisit the literature on helping and happiness through this theoretical lens to reveal how
prosocial acts that promote SDT’s three key components are most likely to promote well-being.
Self-Determination Theory is a meta-theory on human motivation which explains that
humans have three core psychological needs central to their physical and psychological well-
being (Howell, Chenot, Hill, & Howell, 2011; Reis, Sheldon, Gable, Roscoe, & Ryan, 2000;
Ryan & Deci, 2000; Sheldon, Ryan, & Reis, 1996). These core needs are: (1) autonomy defined
as the need to see one’s actions as volitional or self-determined, (2) competence defined as the
need to see oneself as capable and effective actor, and (3) relatedness defined as the need to feel
close or connected to other human beings (see Bandura, 1977; Baumeister & Leary, 1995;
DeCharms, 1968; Patrick, Knee, Canevello, & Lonsbary, 2007; White, 1963).
Satisfying these psychological needs leads to positive outcomes across domains ranging
from treatment adherence to education (e.g., Baard, Deci, & Ryan, 2004; Chen et al., 2015; Ng et
al., 2012; Vansteenkiste et al., 2007). For instance, research conducted with over 200 HIV+
patients showed that individuals who experience greater feelings of autonomy over their
treatment report higher perceptions of competence and, in turn, are more likely to adhere to
essential antiviral therapy medication (Kennedy, Goggin & Nollin, 2004). Another survey with
728 Canadian high school students found that students reported feeling greater competence, and
were more interested in pursuing science and related careers when they felt that their teachers
provided them with autonomy over their learning (Lavigne et al., 2007). Thus, prosocial acts that
allow givers to fulfill one or more of these core needs – and contribute to personal growth – are
more likely to lead to happiness than prosocial acts that fail to provide these same opportunities.
Explanatory value. Revisiting the literature on helping and happiness through the lens of
Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) offers several benefits. First, it synthesizes
anomalous findings. Without a theoretical framework, studies that fail to detect the emotional
rewards of giving may appear flawed or confusing. However, as a number of similar results align
with one another and with SDT’s theoretical predictions, these findings form meaningful and
coherent observations that deepen our understanding of the relationship between prosocial
behavior and happiness. Second, the use of SDT as a theoretical framework situates research on
prosocial behavior within the literature on when and how people experience well-being. Finally,
the insights generated from applying SDT can guide future experiments and policies to increase
the likelihood that helping does in fact lead to greater happiness. More broadly, by learning why
and when helping leads to happiness, policy makers and organizational leaders can design
programs that are more likely to boost well-being.
Autonomy. Sometimes people engage in generous behavior because of external pressures.
For instance, schools may require students to participate in community service as a graduation
requirement, offices may mandate pro-bono work, and some people may provide help because
they fear disapproval or rejection (Cain, Dana & Newman, 2017). Consistent with SDT’s
proposition that people need to exert autonomy over their decisions, prosocial behavior is most
likely to lead to happiness when actors have chosen to provide help.
A handful of studies support the importance of choice and volition for reaping pleasure
from helping. In one small lab experiment, 80 students were given money to distribute between
themselves and another participant before reporting their well-being. Half of these students were
randomly assigned to a high-autonomy condition in which they had a choice about how much
money, if any, they wanted to provide another participant. Meanwhile, the other half of the
students were randomly assigned to a low-autonomy condition in which they had no choice about
how much money was provided to another participant. Results revealed that giving more money
to another person led to higher levels of happiness, but only in the high-autonomy condition
where people had the freedom to choose their gift amount (Weinstein & Ryan, 2010; see also
Wu, Zhang, Guo & Gros-Luis, 2017). In fact, higher levels of generosity predicted lower levels
of well-being when people were forced to give a pre-determined amount. Thus, providing people
with a choice over their generous action was critical for experiencing the happiness benefits of
giving. As mentioned earlier, researchers observed a similar pattern when students were given
money that could be taxed or donated to a local food bank. In this study, researchers detected an
overall boost when giving to charity as observed by activation in pleasure centers of the brain.
These benefits were larger when participants chose to give, as opposed to having their money
rerouted to charity via a mandatory tax (Harbaugh et al., 2006).
Additional evidence from the realm of volunteering underscores the importance of
autonomy for reaping emotional benefits from helping. Despite the robust association between
formal volunteer work and well-being in large cross-sectional and longitudinal data sets, very
few experiments have examined whether volunteering leads to greater happiness, and those that
have provide little evidence for a robust causal relationship. For instance, in a systematic review
of the nine studies exploring this question at the time, Jenkinson and colleagues (2013) found no
support for the hypothesis that volunteering improves well-being. While this null result may have
been due to the small number of participants included in each study (715 participants across 9
studies; median number per study = 54), subsequent studies using larger samples reveal similar
conclusions. Indeed, in one pre-registered experiment and the largest study conducted on the
topic to date, nearly 300 college students in Massachusetts were randomly assigned to engage in
formal volunteer work for 10-12 hours weekly or to a wait-list control group (Whillans, Seider,
Chen, Dwyer, et al., 2016). To assess the impact of volunteering, students reported their well-
being over a six-month period. Students who volunteered were no happier than those assigned to
the waitlist, suggesting that formal volunteering had no measurable benefits (Whillans et al.,
2016; see also Schreier, Schonert-Reichl, & Chen, 2013). While this finding appears to conflict
with the generalized notion that helping leads to happiness, these results likely stem from the
mandatory nature of many volunteering opportunities. Specifically, volunteering as part of
educational programs may not feel volitional because many students are required to complete a
certain number of service hours for graduation. Moreover, school-based volunteering may
provide little chance for personalization, direct contact with the recipient, or clear evidence of
impact – all critical details that align with SDT’s key motives.
More recently, Lok and Dunn (2020) conducted a well-powered, pre-registered
experiment demonstrating the value of personal choice for experiencing the emotional benefits of
generosity. One hundred participants were recruited online and asked to describe two recent
experiences in which they spent money on another person or cause. In random order, participants
were asked to describe a time that they had decided to help (high-autonomy) and a time that they
had little choice to help (low-autonomy). Participants reported their positive emotions at the time
of spending after each writing exercise. Consistent with predictions, participants reported greater
positive feelings after describing a time they chose to spend money in a way that helped others
than after describing a time they spent money to help others but had little choice over whether to
do so. Taken together, these findings offer important implications for policy makers: Provide
people with the opportunity to choose how they assist others whenever possible.
Of course, not all contexts are able to permit total freedom when selecting helping
behavior. When real-world constraints apply, two framing strategies may prove useful. First,
offer people a choice of how to help, as opposed to whether to help. For instance, students
required to complete community service hours could decide how they would like to spend their
allotted time. By providing a range of activities – from cooking with seniors to cleaning up local
parks to caring for sheltered animals – students have a means for exercising their need for
autonomy, as well helping in a way that enacts their preferences and identity (Aaker & Akutsu,
2009; Kessler & Milkman, 2018). Second, if injecting an opportunity for choice is not available,
simply reminding people that they have the freedom to help or not can preserve the emotional
rewards of giving. In one study, 104 students were given the chance to help with a task – some
were told that it was “entirely their choice whether to help or not” and others were told that they
“should help out.” After, students reported their well-being. Analyses revealed that students felt
happier after helping when their freedom to choose was prompted (Weinstein & Ryan, 2010).
Competence. Some giving opportunities provide prosocial actors with clear evidence of
how their actions have positively influenced others. When delivering groceries to homebound
senior citizens or distributing clothes directly to a homeless shelter, people are able to directly
see how their efforts make recipients’ lives better. Yet, seeing the benefit of one’s actions is not
always possible, such as in the case of online donations and payroll deductions. Consistent with
SDT’s (Ryan & Deci, 2000) need for competence, prosocial behavior is most likely to lead to
happiness when the helper is aware that their actions have made a difference for others.
Allowing helpers to see how their actions help others motivates prosocial behavior. A
large body of research on “the identifiable victim effect” demonstrates that people are willing to
direct greater assistance to one, recognizable target in need than a larger, unrecognizable group
in the same dire situation (Jenni & Loewenstein, 1997; Kogut & Ritov, 2011; Small,
Loewenstein & Slovic, 2007). This finding may stem from the human desire to demonstrate
competence by having a clear positive impact on others (Cryder, Loewenstein & Scheines,
2013). People are more likely to help others when they are provided with tangible details about
how their efforts improve others’ welfare. In one small study, after meeting with a past recipient
and witnessing the positive impact that their efforts could make, 39 workers at a university call
center who aimed to collect donations for student scholarships raised 171% more money and
spent 142% more time on the phone than callers assigned to various control groups (Grant,
Campbell, Chen, Cottone, Lapedis & Lee, 2006). This theory may also explain why people
appear to be more willing to donate near the end of charitable campaigns when the target is
within sight; late stage donations provide a greater sense of impact (Cryder, Loewenstein &
Providing donors with efficacy information not only increases donations, but can also
make giving more emotionally rewarding. In one study, 120 students received $10 CAD and
were asked if they would like to donate to a charity to help those in need before reporting their
happiness (Aknin, Dunn, Whillans, Grant & Norton, 2013). Importantly, half of the students
were randomly assigned to a low-impact information condition in which they were told that their
donation would go to UNICEF, which helps children around the globe in various ways.
Meanwhile, the other half of students were randomly assigned to a high-impact information
condition in which they were told that their donation would go to Spread the Net, an organization
that buys a bed net to stop the spread of malaria through Africa with every ten dollars collected.
Larger donations predicted higher levels of post-donation happiness, but only when donations
went to Spread the Net, suggesting that clear information about how one’s contributions benefit
others is important for experiencing the emotional benefits of giving. These findings align with
those of bone marrow donors who report more positive post-donation experiences when they
believe that their sacrifice helped the recipient’s chances of survival (Switzer et al., 1996) and
the benefits of providing advice, which stem from increased competence and capability (Eskreis-
Winkler et al., 2018). The extent to which various forms of interpersonal helping provide
competence information may also help explain why RAKs lead to greater well-being while
volunteering does not; the direct and immediate nature of RAKs provides clear, direct evidence
of help, while the often-distant nature of volunteer work might seem incremental or obscure.
The importance of appreciating one’s positive impact was observed in a recent well-
powered, pre-registered experiment with 100 participants recruited online (Lok & Dunn, 2020).
Participants were asked to describe two recent experiences in which they spent money on another
person or cause. Importantly, participants were asked to describe one experience in which they
were able to clearly see the difference their actions made (high-impact) and describe one
experience in which they were unaware of the difference that their actions made (low-impact) in
random order. When participants reported their positive emotions at the time of spending after
each writing exercise, participants reported greater positive feelings after recalling the high-
impact (vs. low-impact) occasion. These findings aligned with predictions and underscore the
value of recognizing one’s positive impact for reaping pleasure from generous behavior.
Relatedness. Humans have a fundamental need to belong and feel connected to others
(Baumeister & Leary, 1995). This reality shapes many decisions, such as how people spend their
time as well as how they use and donate their money. A sense of personal connection to a victim
motivates numerous charitable donors (e.g., Small & Simonsohn, 2008). This may come as no
surprise given that social relationships have been identified as one of the best predictors of
happiness (Diener & Seligman, 2002; Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005). For example, many
people make significant donations to medical research as a result of a personal connection to a
victim. Similarly, the majority of organ and tissue donations occur between close friends and
family members each year (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2020).
Importantly, existing evidence aligns with the predictions raised by SDT: acts of
generosity which allow people to create and strengthen social bonds are more likely to boost the
actor’s happiness than those that do not. Several initial studies support the notion that socially
connected giving leads to greater happiness. For instance, in one small experiment, 80 students
were asked to recall a time they spent approximately twenty dollars on someone else who was
either a strong social tie (e.g., a close family member or friend) or weak social tie (e.g.,
acquaintance) before reporting their happiness. Consistent with the idea that generosity is most
rewarding when it facilitates meaningful social ties, people who recalled a time they spent on
close others reported greater happiness (Aknin, Sandstrom, Dunn & Norton, 2011).
Other evidence suggests that even small chances to build social connection matter too. In
another experiment, 24 students were endowed with $10 CAD and the chance to give as much or
as little of this amount away to another student in the classroom. Importantly, for half of the
students, the donation was transferred to the recipient by a researcher assistant, which precluded
social contact. Meanwhile, the other half of students delivered the donation to the recipient
directly, facilitating a brief social exchange. When the funds were provided in a face-to-face
exchange, larger donations led to higher levels of happiness. When transferred by an
intermediary, larger donations predicted slightly lower levels of happiness (Aknin, Dunn,
Sandstrom & Norton, 2013).
Not all forms of prosocial behavior can accommodate personal interaction. People
sometimes give to causes or recipients on the other side of the globe where direct contact is
unlikely. In these cases, meaningful social connection with an agent or representative of the
cause may unlock the emotional benefits of giving. For instance, in one study, 68 participants
were invited to donate to a charity that brings fresh water to the people of Africa (Aknin et al.,
2013). Half the participants were randomly assigned to the high social connection condition in
which they were asked for a donation by a research assistant who mentioned a personal
connection to the cause, explaining that a friend had just returned from a trip to the region
supporting this charity. The other half of participants were randomly assigned to the low social
connection condition and were not told of this personal connection when solicited. Consistent
with the findings reported above, participants reported greater happiness after donating more
money to charity, but only when giving to a personal representative of the organization,
highlighting how even minimal social interactions may be critical for experiencing pleasure from
giving (Aknin et al., 2013).
Once again, the importance of social connection for reaping the enjoyment of generosity
has been observed in a recent well-powered, pre-registered experiment (Lok & Dunn, 2020). One
hundred participants were recruited online and asked to recall a time they spent money on
someone else or a cause. Specifically, in random order, participants were asked to describe a
time that they felt connected to the person or causes they assisted (high-connection) and a time
they did not feel connected to the person or the cause that they assisted (low-connection).
Participants reported their positive emotions at the time of spending after each writing exercise.
Consistent with the researchers’ predictions and the notion that social connection unlocks the
emotional rewards of giving, participants reported greater positive feelings after describing a
time they spent money in a way that made them feel connected to others or a meaningful cause
than a time they spent money that lacked those connections. Taken together, these results suggest
that prosocial behavior is most likely to be rewarding when it allows helpers to connect with
other people. As such, policy makers should consider constructing helping opportunities that
allow givers to connect with others – whether this be the recipient, an agent for the cause, or
Applying New Lessons to Familiar Contexts
Thus far we have described how helping is most likely to increase happiness when
prosocial activities satisfy the fundamental motivations identified by Self-Determination Theory
(i.e., autonomy, competence, and relatedness). While this observation seems relatively
straightforward, what does it look like in practice?
When thinking about how to translate these research findings into action, practitioners
must consider structuring opportunities to help in a way that provides individuals with choice,
allows individuals to see the impact of their actions, and provides helpers with the chance to
build and foster social relationships. In the next section, we provide illustrative examples of how
leaders, organizations, and governments can put these ideas into practice across three diverse
contexts—taxation, blood donations and workplace initiatives— and in turn, potentially help the
people they serve derive more satisfaction from their helping decisions (see Table 1 for
We discuss examples from taxation, blood donation, and workplace prosociality because
these domains are familiar, ubiquitous and consequential. Many societies depend on the revenue
collected from taxes to support essential public goods like health-care, education, and anti-
poverty programs. Despite the benefits that taxes provide for the taxpayer and their neighbors,
many citizens—especially the wealthy in the top income brackets—feel dissatisfied with paying
their taxes and choose to underreport, leading to large-scale societal costs (Gangl & Torgler,
2020; IRS, 2019; Rasmusseun, 2010, Olivola & Sussman, 2015 for a comprehensive review).
Similarly, societies depend on citizens to donate blood, tissue, and organs to help individuals in
need, yet this need often goes unmet (Riley, 2007). Finally, most people spend a great deal of
their lives at work (Schor, 2008), and so the quality of the workplace environment, which often
is associated with workplace prosociality, has a meaningful impact on well-being (see Krekel,
Ward & DeNeve 2018 for a comprehensive review). Given their consequence, these contexts
offer examples of how practitioners can concretely introduce strategies to maximize autonomy,
competence, and relatedness to help people derive more happiness from everyday helping.
It is worth noting that bolstering happiness is not only desirable for the helper, but it
could also encourage future acts of generosity, thereby providing benefit to others as well. As
noted above, there is a robust link between giving and happiness, and several studies, including
one with over 200 participants, report that individuals who experience greater happiness from
giving are more inclined to give again in the future (Aknin, Dunn & Norton, 2012; Layous,
Nelson, Kurtz & Lyubomirsky, 2017). Thus, to the extent that leaders make helping more
emotionally rewarding, they might also inspire future generosity.
People have a fundamental desire to see their actions as self-determined and experience
greater well-being when engaging in actions that meet this desire. Policy makers and leaders can
harness this information by providing opportunities for volition across a variety of helping
Taxation. SDT provides a framework to understand how policy makers might reduce the
pervasive dissatisfaction created by paying taxes. Similar to the results observed within the
domain of charitable giving, providing citizens with choice over where their tax dollars go can
increase satisfaction. In one experiment conducted with 151 college students, researchers asked
students to work on a difficult task for pay. Before starting the task, researchers told students that
they would be required to pay tax on the money they made. Giving students the opportunity to
allocate 20% of this tax to a university initiative that they felt was personally important, such as
the campus library (vs. not providing this opportunity), helped students feel significantly more
satisfied with paying the tax (Lamberton, 2013). These students also persisted longer on the paid
Practically speaking, it is improbable that governments can actually allow citizens to
choose where their tax dollars go. However, simply allowing people to express their personal
preferences can be enough to boost satisfaction. Specifically, governments can inject the feeling
of choice into the act of paying taxes by allowing citizens to vote on the services that they feel
are critical for the functioning of society prior to paying their taxes, therefore allowing citizens to
express their personal preferences and identity. In one demonstration of this effect, researchers
recruited 267 American citizens to complete an online study. Participants who were given the
chance to express (non-binding) preferences about where their tax dollars should go were 15%
more compliant with paying their taxes as compared to citizens who were not given the
opportunity to express their personal preference (Lamberton, DeNeve & Norton, 2018). These
results suggest that even providing citizen with the perception of choice can help people feel less
dissatisfied with paying taxes, which may in turn, make paying taxes more enjoyable.
Blood donations. Policy makers can use SDT to increase the emotional satisfaction of
blood donations by providing people with a sense of control over the donation experience. A
study of 40 blood donors ranging in age from 15-70 found that providing blood donors with
information about how their blood would be drawn alongside providing choice over which arm
to have the blood drawn from significantly reduced self-reported stress and discomfort (Mills &
Krantz, 1979). Clinics could therefore build more choice into the blood donation process by
providing donors with choice over when and where they can donate. In providing donors with
choice over small aspects of the decision—such as when, where, and even how (i.e., what arm)
to have the blood drawn —clinics are likely to reduce the stress of the procedure and therefore
improve the mood and satisfaction of their donors.
Workplace prosocial initiatives. Many workplaces provide employees with the
opportunity to donate to corporate causes as part of organizations corporate social responsibility
programs (see Bhattacharya, Sen & Korschun, 2008 for an overview of research examining
corporate social responsibility initiatives and employee engagement). A growing number of
organizations have annual fundraising campaigns, or provide employees with the opportunity to
help their local community by partnering with local non-profits. In the context of these
campaigns, workplaces should consider allowing employees to exert personal choice over these
activities. Instead of choosing the fundraising target for employees, companies could allow
employees to vote on where they would like their donations to go.
The value of providing choice is evident in recent study on fundraising campaigns at an
Ivy League university where more than 32,000 alumni were presented with one of two
communications prompting them to donate. In one communication, alumni were given the
chance to indicate which of four possible fundraising areas was most important to them. In the
other communication, alumni simply viewed these fundraising areas that the university was
considering. The first communication that allowed alumni donors to exert autonomy and control
over their contribution resulted in donations that were 100-300% larger than the standard, no-
choice appeal (Kessler, Milkman, & Zhang, 2019). Providing choice was especially effective at
increasing donations for the wealthiest alumni who constituted the top 1% and 5% earners in the
sample. These findings are consistent with research showing that wealthier people care more
about exerting choice and having control over daily actions (Whillans, Caruso & Dunn, 2017;
Whillans & Dunn, 2018). Thus, workplaces should consider allowing employees to choose
where they would like their donations of time and money to go. This strategy might be especially
effective at increasing engagement and emotional benefits for leadership and higher salaried
People also have a need to see themselves as competent and effective agents. When
people recognize that their actions have made an impact they are more likely to experience well-
being. Policy makers can use this information to encourage generous behavior and make these
actions more emotionally rewarding.
Taxation. Making it easier for citizens to see how their tax dollars will be used to help
society can improve satisfaction by increasing feelings of competence. In a series of studies,
including a nationally representative sample of Americans, Canadian college students, and data
from over 474,00 adults in 107 countries, people who were more confident that their taxes would
have a positive impact on other people felt significantly more positive about paying their taxes,
expressed a greater willingness to continue paying taxes, and offered larger financial
contributions in a lab-based tax-like transfer (Thornton, Aknin, Branscombe & Helliwell, 2019).
Importantly, these associations held while controlling for demographic information, respondents’
general willingness to help others, and the perception that tax dollars were generally being put to
good use. These findings suggest that policy makers should try to make the societal benefit of
taxation more apparent. Governments could make it easier for citizens to see the direct benefits
that their tax dollars have on other citizens by providing images or reminders on tax forms to
convey how their payments are used to help other people. Governments already employ this
strategy when placing signs on highway roads that highlight “your tax dollars at work” to show
how taxpayer money is being used to make capital improvements. By reminding citizens that
their taxes contribute to roads, schools, hospitals and other essential services, citizens are likely
to feel more satisfied with paying their taxes.
Blood donations. Professionals could also consider increasing the emotional satisfaction
of blood donations by harnessing donor motivations to feel competent by showing donors the
specific impact of their blood donations. In one ongoing campaign in the UK, after donating
once, donors received letters of appreciation from recipients, thereby helping them to see the
successful outcome of their costly action. After donating numerous years in a row, donors are
invited to a blood donation ceremony where they receive a commemorative medal, badge, and
certificate and hear from recipients themselves about how blood transfusions have had a
profound impact on their lives (Recognizing Donors, 2020). In addition, because giving as part
of a group allows people to see a larger response to the problem at hand, donors may also derive
a meaningful sense of joy and efficacy from seeing how their blood helps to fulfill the needs of
their community alongside the contribution of many others.
Workplace prosocial initiatives. Employers may feel tempted to make donation
opportunities as easy as possible for employees to engage in, such as by encouraging employees
to make automatic deductions from their paychecks. While tempting, people actually prefer to
engage in effortful acts of prosocial behavior—because it helps people fulfill their desire to feel
competent. In one illustrative set of studies, people gained more satisfaction from exerting effort
for causes they cared about. In one hypothetical choice study, 136 undergraduate students at an
American university said that they would feel more satisfied and would donate more money to
charity if they were given the opportunity to run a race for a cause that they cared about as
opposed to write a check (Olivola & Shafir, 2013). In another study of 33 students, college
students in one group were asked to submerge their hands in a bucket of ice-cold water for 60
seconds (known as the ‘cold presser’ task) if they wanted to donate. This group of students gave
more money than students who were not told that they would have to put themselves through
pain to donate (Olivola & Shafir, 2013). Thus, allowing employees to engage in effortful
helping—like volunteering in person for a cause they care about—could encourage greater
satisfaction by leveraging people’s goals of demonstrating competence.
Similarly, autoenrollments that ‘default’ employees into donating could undermine
happiness by preventing people from feeling as if they have choice or that they are exerting
effort over the donation opportunity. Autoenrollment could also prevent people from actively
reflecting on the donation opportunity, undermining the opportunity to experience emotional
well-being. Because people who experience the greatest happiness from helping are more likely
to give again in future (Aknin, Dunn & Norton, 2012), autoenrollment could undermine long-
term giving—although more research is needed to test these predictions in real-world contexts.
Finally, humans want to feel close and connected to other people. Actions that facilitate
social connection lead to greater well-being. Consequently, policy makers can harness this
information to promote generous behavior and make generous actions more rewarding.
Taxation. Practitioners can leverage people’s desire for social connection to boost the
emotional rewards of paying taxes. One reason people feel so dissatisfied with paying taxes is
that the activity is devoid of positive feedback from people they care about. Citizens pay taxes
through an official and sterile form, without any reminder of the people and initiatives that the
tax dollars support, like schools (their children), roads (their neighbors), or local homeless
shelters (their community). People who are aware of the impact that their actions have for others
feel a greater sense of responsibility to help others, are more civically engaged, and experience
greater satisfaction with paying taxes (Baumeister & Brewer, 2012; Whillans, Wispinski &
In one online experiment of 223 Americans, participants were randomly assigned to
reflect on the fact that their financial resources incurred a responsibility to give back to society or
to reflect on daily experiences. After reflecting on their responsibility to help others, respondents
were more likely to agree with statements such as “My taxes will improve the country” because
they were better able to see the link between taxation and helping (Whillans, Wispinski & Dunn,
2016). See also Gangl and Torgler (2020) for a lengthy discussion about how to increase tax
compliance among the wealthy. These results provide suggestive evidence that reminding
citizens that 1) their tax dollars can benefit other people, such as other tax payers who are less
fortunate, and 2) paying their taxes is a civic obligation to help society can reduce dissatisfaction
and increase the emotional rewards of paying one’s taxes. It is worth noting, of course, that it
may be harder for the public to see the value of some specific taxes. For instance, sales taxes,
inheritance taxes, and taxes meant to disincentivize certain behaviors, such as the use of tobacco,
sugar, alcohol, and petrol, may seem punitive unless governments take particular care to explain
how the revenue will be used to benefit the public. Thus, when applying SDT, it is important to
recognize that these suggestions will not be uniformly applicable across contexts.
Blood donations. Blood donations—unlike charitable donations and volunteering—do
not easily allow for personal connection between donors or recipients. Fostering social
connection could be especially important for increasing the emotional rewards of blood
donations. To put this principle into practice, organizations could help donors connect directly
with one another. In one recent campaign, a national organization allowed donors to build
community with each other by allowing them to share their motivations for giving through a
monthly newsletter entitled “Humans of Blood Donations.” The opportunity to connect with
other donors and to feel recognized for a costly form of prosocial behavior that is often invisible,
could be an especially important tool for increasing the emotional benefits of blood donation,
and to encourage sustained engagement in the behavior. Organizations could also help donors
feel more connected to each other through public recognition. Many donation opportunities—
including blood drives—ask recent donors to fill out a certificate of completion after giving
blood and to place it in a hospital lobby or drugstore. While this action can fulfill other
motivations, including public recognition (Kraus & Callaghan, 2016), displaying donations in
public could increase recent donors’ feelings of connectedness to a broader community.
Blood donation organizations can also take steps to create minimal social connections
between donors and recipients. As noted above, one ongoing blood collection campaign in the
UK provides letters from recipients to donors, and honours long-time donors at a ceremony.
Letters allow people to feel directly connected to the recipient and the ceremony invitation
provides another venue for people to feel connected to a broader community of donors, thus
potentially increasing the long-term emotional benefit of donating blood.
Workplace prosocial initiatives. Organizations should also provide employees with the
opportunity to build social connections while working together to help the causes they care
about. Specifically, workplace prosocial opportunities should encourage employees to work with
colleagues, rather than to work alone. Working together is not only likely to build stronger
connections, it is also likely to increase the emotional benefits of giving. Employees feel a
greater sense of connection and are less likely to quit when their workplaces offer them the
opportunity to engage in immersive workplace initiatives with one another—like volunteering in
different countries (e.g., Burbano 2016). While allowing employees to volunteer for local causes
is a powerful way to improve mood and promote retention (Bode, Singh & Rogan, 2015;
Flammer & Luo, 2017), helping employees see how their work helps the people they serve or is
connected to others’ work might also powerfully promote employees’ productivity and their
emotional well-being (see also Buell & Norton, 2015; Yoon, Whillans & O’Brien, 2020). As we
described above, employees at a university call center who were given the opportunity meet a
student who benefited from their work experienced greater in-the-moment mood and felt more
emotionally committed to their organizations (Grant et al., 2007). Thus, fostering connections
between donors and/or beneficiaries is likely to increase giving and its emotional rewards.
This section has outlined a few examples of how the principles of Self-Determination
Theory can be applied across diverse, real-world, helping contexts—from revising tax forms to
creating a community of blood donors and recipients. By harnessing insights from social
psychology, helping opportunities can be improved by understanding that people want to express
personal choice, know the direct positive impact of their help, and connect meaningfully with
While our discussion delineated ways that policy makers can improve feelings of
autonomy, competence, or relatedness, the three SDT motives are often synergistic in nature.
Interventions that heighten one motive will likely have a positive spillover on others. Consider
blood and tissue donation campaigns that provide donors with a personal note from a recipient
citing their new lease on life. A message like this not only provides donors with clear evidence of
their positive impact (competence) but could also increase feelings of social connection
(relatedness). As a result, policy makers do not need to focus on increasing one motive at the
expense of others. Rather, an effort to increase one motive may increase other motives too.
While data-informed decisions are better than relying on intuition, it is important to be
cautious when trying to make program or policy changes based on the results of small lab-based
experiments. We highlighted studies that used large, pre-registered, and/or field-based methods
whenever possible to provide the most relevant and replicable evidence; however, we encourage
researchers and practitioners to be mindful of the disconnect between theory and practice. It is
challenging to predict how the results of a single study will translate in diverse and complicated
real-world settings where people are faced with multiple competing demands on their time and
attention. It is also difficult to interpret studies conducted in idiosyncratic field contexts (i.e.,
with employees at one organization or donors in university settings) given that numerous
external factors can contribute to the results—such as the time of year that people are asked to
contribute or other opportunities to help that people are simultaneously presented with.
The organizational and societal context also plays a critical role in predicting the effect of
an intervention (see Kristal & Whillans, 2020 for a recent discussion). If employees work in a
highly dysfunctional organization, it is unlikely that providing people with a donation
opportunity will reduce negative affect enough to prevent quitting. It is also possible that
employees could infer negative intent from a dysfunctional organization who is offering the
opportunity to help, negating any possible effects of helping on happiness. For these reasons, we
encourage policy makers to consider conducting experimental tests of our suggestions in their
own contexts (Whillans & Devine, 2018). In particular, organizations and policy makers should
work together with researchers to ensure that the insights discussed here replicate in other
organizational and social and cultural settings (see Whillans, 2016 for a similar argument).
Many problems in society can be improved by helping one another—either in small one-
on-one exchanges, at work, or through policy improvements. We have reviewed research
suggesting that providing people with the opportunity to help one another can boost happiness—
if the conditions are right. This review highlights the fact that certain conditions make the
emotional rewards of helping others more likely. When the opportunity to help fulfils the basic
tenants of Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) by providing people with the chance
to exercise autonomy over decisions, see how their efforts made a positive impact, and connect
with other people, giving opportunities are most likely to translate into positive emotion.
In hopes of helping policy makers translate these insights in their own contexts, we have
focused on several real-world examples — taxation, blood donations, and corporate social
responsibility initiatives. Another promising, yet less well understood, area of future inquiry is to
consider how other familiar giving contexts can be made more effective at promoting emotional
well-being and sustaining habits of charitable giving. Other real-world contexts—such as sports-
fundraisers, classroom helping opportunities, and non-secular volunteering and religious
organizations could harness Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) to strengthen the
well-documented link between giving and happiness. In our ongoing research, we are exploring
whether charitable giving programs implemented as part of organized youth sports teams and
elementary school curriculums might be most likely to improve the well-being of youth when
they provide the chance for deep reflection and conversation (Proulx, Macchia, Aknin &
Whillans, 2020). Reflection and conversation are likely critical elements, in part because active
discussions help students connect with one another around a shared goal, and to consider how
their collective generosity as teams or classrooms can have specific impacts in the community.
By conducting research that seeks to understand the exact mechanisms by which these programs
improve emotional well-being and subsequent giving, we hope that this ongoing work will
bolster the success of helping-oriented activities like church and after-school programs.
Designing real-world contexts in a way that bolsters the happiness benefits of helping is
not an easy pursuit. Governments and organizations have multiple demands in terms of where
they can direct their time, money, energy and attention. Moreover, not all individuals are
motivated by the same framings and design. For example, men and women often respond
differently to appeals for help (e.g., Eagly, 2009; Eagly & Crowley, 1986). Some research
suggests that men, as compared to women, are less motivated to donate and experience less
satisfaction from donation experiences when donation appeals rely on eliciting empathy and
personal connection between donors and recipients (Willer, Wimer & Owens, 2015). Instead,
they are more motivated by appeals to competence (Willer et al., 2015). Other research
demonstrates that wealthier people are also more persuaded by appeals to personal competence
as opposed to relatedness (Whillans, Caruso & Dunn, 2017). Collectively, these results suggest
that it is necessary to know your audience so that you can tailor messages to what your specific
target group cares about most. As a result, it could be difficult to design opportunities to donate
that will appeal to a broad set of citizens. Yet, research suggests that appealing to an underlying
set of motivations related to SDT is a safer strategy for boosting the emotional benefits than not
relying on a framework.
Despite the fact that trying to boost the emotional satisfaction of helping opportunities
will involve critical thinking and experimentation within one’s own context, we believe that it is
a worthwhile pursuit. As described above, research suggests that the more people find the act of
helping rewarding, the more likely they are to engage in the behavior again in the future (e.g.,
Aknin et al., 2011; Layous et al., 2017). If policy makers are able to leverage the insights from
Self-Determination Theory to increase the mood benefits of giving and encourage more citizens
to engage in prosociality, this could create a positive shift in norms, whereby more people start to
engage in helping behaviors because they see others doing so (Frank, 2020). These benefits
could then possibly ripple outwards to promote other forms of socially desirable behaviors,
including voting and pro-environmental behavior.
Encouraging people to engage in additional acts of helping may also address other social
challenges, such as rising rates of loneliness and obesity. Research suggests that the well-being
benefits of formal volunteering that are observed in large-scale correlational data sets are driven
almost completely by the fact that people who volunteer also report greater satisfaction with their
social interactions and feel more socially connected (Creaven, Healy & Howard, 2018).
Similarly, research suggests that engagement in volunteering for older adults is not only linked to
greater happiness, but that it also promotes positive physical health outcomes such as higher
physical activity and reduced mortality risk (Kim et al., 2020). These results suggest that
understanding how to make people feel better about helping others is likely not only to benefit
the individual themselves but to promote positive social change as well.
Human beings are exceptionally prosocial. Not only do we go out of our way to help
other people, but we often feel good when we do. By leveraging insights from Self-
Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), practitioners and academics can work together to
further strengthen the link between helping and happiness. To date, a lot is known about how the
motivational building blocks of autonomy, competence, and relatedness can be harnessed to
make the act of helping feel good in the moment. Going forward, practitioners and academics
will need to continue to work together to examine how helping can feel good over time to unlock
the sustained emotional benefits of altruism. To accomplish this ambitious aim, practitioners and
academics can explore how contextual factors impact the emotional rewards of helping within
particular contexts and across them, to build a robust understanding of the most powerful levers
we can use to increase the immediate and long-term mood benefits of helping.
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Table 1. Sample strategies to increase Self-Determination Theory motivations of autonomy,
competence and relatedness in three familiar, real-world giving contexts.
Allow voters to
Give donors the choice of
which arm to use for
When possible, allow
donors to select when
and how they would like
to donate blood
Allow employees to select
where company donations
Allow employees to
determine how they help
(i.e. provide expertise,
time, mentoring, etc.)
Show evidence of
Provide donors with
evidence of their positive
impact through letters of
appreciation from the
donors or a
Recognize repeat donors
with plaque, certificate or
Give employees a chance to
provide costly or
like running a race (vs.
writing a check) for a
cause they care about
Minimize use of
default charitable giving
Emphasize tax as a
civic duty shared
by all citizens,
Create a donor network or
community for repeat
givers to connect and
share their experiences
When appropriate, allow
donors and recipients to
interact or meet each
Provide employees an
opportunity to give aid in
teams, rather than alone
Allow employees to visit
recipient(s) to see impact