HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 1
Happiness Comes from Trying to Make Others Feel Good, Rather Than Oneself
Liudmila Titova1,2 and Kennon M. Sheldon1,3
1Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia
2Department of Psychology, Elon University
3International Laboratory of Positive Psychology of Personality and Motivation,
National Research University Higher School of Economics
We have no conflicts of interest to disclose
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Liudmila Titova, Department of
Psychology, Elon University, 100 Campus Drive, Elon, NC. Email: email@example.com.
The paper was supported by the Russian Academic Excellence Project ‘5-100’ (Kennon M.
The authors extend our immense gratitude to Dr. Laura King for invaluable feedback on this
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 2
Americans are guaranteed the right to “pursue happiness” for themselves. But might they be
better off if they pursued happiness for others? In five studies we compared the two strategies,
showing that, ironically, the second pursuit brings more personal happiness than the first.
Retrospective study 1 (N = 123) and experimental studies 2 (N = 96) and 3 (N = 141) show that
trying to make someone else happy leads to greater subjective well-being than trying to make
oneself happy. In all three studies, relatedness need-satisfaction mediated the condition
differences. Study 4 (N = 175) extended the findings by showing that trying to make others
happy is more personally beneficial than when others try to make us happy. Study 5 (N = 198)
found that feeding strangers’ parking meters produced the effect even though the participant did
not interact with the targeted other.
Keywords: well-being, happiness, SDT, relatedness
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 3
Happiness Comes from Trying to Make Others Feel Good, Rather Than Oneself
“The surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
Happiness is a desire for most people, and, therefore, interest in learning about ways to
increase happiness is high among the public. Many Westerners, particularly Americans, see the
pursuit of happiness as a personal endeavor, which requires action towards self-serving goals and
agendas (Lu & Gilmour, 2004; Oishi et al., 2013). However, as the above quote suggests, it may
be that switching one’s concentration from the self to other people could be a more effective way
to achieve personal happiness. Perhaps counterintuitively, making oneself truly happy may
require one to forget about oneself, and to instead care mainly about the happiness of others.
Other-Targeted Activities are More Effective
Some studies examine differences between self-targeted and other-targeted happiness-
promoting behaviors, showing that focusing on others rather than the self may supply a more
reliable route to happiness. For instance, Dunn and colleagues (2008) found that participants
randomly assigned to spend money on others subsequently felt happier than participants assigned
to spend the same amount of money on themselves. Ensuing research showed that this effect
occurs in other cultures, suggesting that the rewarding effects of such spending are observed in
many human societies (Aknin et al., 2013a; Dunn et al., 2014). However, these researchers have
concentrated primarily on the effects of spending money on self or other and have not examined
the phenomenon in a more general way.
Nelson and colleagues (2016) took a first step towards such generalization, comparing
self-focused acts of kindness with other-focused acts of kindness. They demonstrated that being
kind to others led to more positive emotion, less negative emotion, and more psychological
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 4
flourishing, compared to self-focused acts of kindness. Additionally, Martela and Ryan (2016a)
showed that prosocial behavior increases well-being even without interpersonal interaction.
Participants who played a computer game that allowed them to have a prosocial impact
experienced more positive affect, meaning and vitality compared to those who did not engage in
prosocial behavior. Moreover, a recent meta-analysis found that engaging in kind acts towards
others leads to improvement in well-being for the person engaging in these kind acts which is not
moderated by age, gender, outcome measures or control conditions (Curry et al., 2018).
Additionally, according to the Eudaimonic Activity Model (EAM; Sheldon, 2016, 2018;
Sheldon et al., 2019) improvements in subjective well-being and happiness cannot be achieved
directly, instead, they can be achieved through engagement in eudaimonic activities (such as
activities connected to growth and development, meaning and purpose, promoting intrinsic
values and pro-sociality). Therefore, according to the EAM, making others happy should prove
more successful for one’s own well-being as it does not target the actor’s own happiness directly,
but leads to benefits via pro-social behavior.
Why are Other-Targeted Activities More Effective?
As shown above, several studies thus far provide preliminary support for the idea that
focusing on others instead of the self may be a more effective route to personal happiness. Thus,
an important question concerns the underlying mechanism for these benefits. A logical candidate
is the feelings of connection that arise between the giver and the target. Many theories propose,
and many studies have found, that close relationships are an important determinant of people’s
well-being (Diener & Seligman, 2002: Lyubomirsky et al., 2005), and that happier people
usually have larger social networks and have more friends compared to the less happy ones
(Myers, 2000). Self-determination theory (SDT) formalizes this idea by suggesting that all
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 5
people have a need for relatedness with others, and SDT research shows that feelings of daily
relatedness, along with feelings of competence and of autonomy, are important predictors of
well-being on a particular day or in a particular context (Reis et al., 2000; Sheldon et al., 1996).
Moreover, when examining prosocial tendencies Martela and Ryan (2016b) found that the
relationship between prosocial behavior and well-being can be explained by basic psychological
needs fulfillment and also by feelings of beneficence. It seems logical that the attempt to make
another person happy would inspire feelings of closeness (i.e. relatedness need-satisfaction), in
the person making the attempt. These feelings might then explain the positive effects of the
other-focused activity upon the well-being of the actor. Supporting this, work by Aknin and
colleagues (2013b) showed that the well-being benefits of prosocial spending were highest when
such spending promoted social connection, highlighting the importance of connection to others.
However, we thought that not just any social experience leads to improved well-being, but
rather, experiences in in which we are focused on the happiness of others rather than of
Another possible explanation for the benefits of focusing on others instead of self could
be a “spillover” effect that is created by the presence of happy people in one’s life. In this view,
one’s attempts to make others happy, when successful, create positive emotions in others, which
in turn spill over back to the self. Supporting such a “spill-over” interpretation, a longitudinal
study which spanned 20 years found greater increases in well-being among people surrounded by
happy people, an effect explained by the spread of happiness through the network rather than by
simple assortation (Fowler & Christakis, 2008). These results led Fowler and Christakis (2008)
to conclude that happiness is contagious, such that one person’s happiness in a network tends to
spill over to others, which eventually spills back to the initial person, raising the emotional
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 6
capital of the entire network. This line of reasoning suggests a process in which trying to make
someone else happier leads to improvements in that other person’s well-being, which indirectly
improves the well-being of the person who initiated the activity.
Importantly, however, people may not always know if their attempts to make others
happier have succeeded. In fact, it may be that the mere perception that one’s attempt has been
successful would explain the effect. In this research we consider both possibilities: (1) that the
person who is being made happy must report an actual boost in happiness, and (2) that the person
who is trying to make another happy merely needs to think that they caused a happiness boost in
In studies 4 and 5 we also examined a different but related question – namely, how do
people feel when others try to make them happy? Is it better to strive towards other’s happiness,
or to have others strive for our happiness? Here, the comparison condition for the other-focused
happiness strategy is not a time people tried to make themselves happy, but rather, a time when
others tried to make them happy. Interestingly, a similar question has been studied by researchers
interested in the health benefits of social support. Inagaki et al. (2016) concluded that giving
versus receiving support is better for one’s own health and suggested that supporting others is a
rather overlooked way to gain personal health benefits. Similarly, giving in general is connected
to more long-term benefits for happiness of the giver compared to receiving it (O’Brien &
Kassirer, 2019). Moreover, the happiness of a giver did not decline even when they were asked
to perform identical behaviors every day for a period of 5 days (O’Brien & Kassirer, 2019).
These results lead to our own study hypothesis, that trying to support other’s happiness might
even be more important for us, than when others try to support our own happiness.
Overview of the Studies
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The studies discussed so far suggest that trying to make someone else happier will lead to
higher well-being than trying to improve one’s own well-being, although no studies have directly
compared the effects, upon happiness, of the two very general goals of “trying to make oneself
happy” versus “trying to make another person happy.” In the first three studies we investigate
this question. In retrospective Study 1 we examine whether an attempt to make someone happy
in the past was associated with higher well-being at that time, than a past attempt to make oneself
happier. In experimental Study 2, we extend the results by randomly assigning participants to
one of the two strategies, or to a control condition (mere socializing). In experimental Study 3 we
try to replicate the findings of Study 2 while also asking “which is most important for raising the
participant’s mood: mere perceived success, or actual measured success, in boosting the other’s
mood?” In retrospective Study 4 we evaluate whether an attempt to make another happy was
more beneficial for participants at that time, than an attempt by another to make oneself happy.
In Study 5, an experimental field study, participants were given money -- either to keep, to feed
their own parking meter, or to feed a stranger’s parking meter.
First, via a retrospective methodology and a within-subjects design, we tested our initial
hypothesis that trying to make someone else happy is associated with greater well-being than
trying to make oneself happy. We also wanted to test if this effect could be explained via SDT’s
conception of basic need-satisfaction. More specifically, we expected that trying to make another
happier is more beneficial for personal well-being due to higher experienced levels of relatedness
need satisfaction, which should mediate the effect.
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 8
Participants were 123 students from a large Midwestern University who participated in
exchange for extra credit in an upper level psychology course. The study was approved by the
Institutional Review Board prior to data collection. The sample size was limited by the
enrolment in the course. Ages ranged from 18 to 64 (M = 21.66, SD = 3.99); 52% women, and
85% were White. The study was administered online, and the materials for this study were a part
of a larger assessment including other study’s materials unrelated to the current study. Post-hoc
power analysis using G*Power suggested that the power was .89.
Participants completed the study online. They recalled a recent time when they tried to
make someone in their life happier or improve their mood and a recent time when they tried to
make themselves happier or improve their own mood (in a counterbalanced order
). The specific
prompt for the first condition stated: “Think of a recent time when you did something to
improve your OWN mood and happiness (for instance, something fun, like listening to a
favorite song, going for a run, or treating yourself to a lunch out). Write 3-5 sentences describing
what you did”. The prompt for the other condition was nearly identical, asking participants to
recall a time when they did something to improve someone ELSE’s mood and happiness. After
participants recalled each time and wrote about it, they were given the assessment of basic
psychological needs satisfaction derived from the activity and subjective well-being.
Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction (BPNS). To measure need satisfaction derived
from the happiness and mood inducing activity we used a short adjective-based measure of
psychological need-satisfaction, which contained four words for each of the three needs, two
positively-worded (e.g., connected, masterful, or free) and two negatively worded (e.g., lonely,
There were no order effects, F(1, 115) = 2.67, p = .105.
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 9
incompetent, or pressured) (Titova & Sheldon, 2021). A 7-point Likert scale was used, and the
opposite words were used as anchor points in the scale with the higher scores representing more
need fulfillment (e.g. incompetent (1) – masterful (7)). The prompt asked: “How did you feel
while doing it? I felt…” Cronbach’s alphas were .86 for relatedness, .78 for competence, and .73
Subjective Well-Being (SWB). To measure satisfaction with life (SWLS), we used a
single item measure which asked: “How satisfied with your life did you feel during the happiness
activity?”, which was rated on 1 (not very satisfied) to 7 (very satisfied) Likert Scale. We also
used a measure of positive and negative affect (Emmons, 1991) which consisted of four positive
(PA; e.g. happy, joyful; α = .92 and five negative (NA; e.g. sad, unhappy; α = .90 emotions, and
participants rated to what extent they felt that way on a scale from 1 to 7. Using standard
procedures to calculate an aggregate SWB score (Busseri & Sadava, 2011; Sheldon & Elliot,
1999; Sheldon & Kasser, 2001), we summed the SWLS and PA scores and subtracted the NA
score, making reliability coefficients for a combined measure α = .93.
Results and Discussion
Results are shown in Table 1. To test our first hypothesis, we conducted paired-sample t-
tests. The results showed that an attempt to make another person happy was associated with more
recalled SWB at that time, than an attempt to make oneself happier. Paired t-tests also showed
significant differences; prior other-targeted activity was associated with more recalled
relatedness and competence, but with less autonomy, compared to prior self-targeted activity.
Moreover, the relatedness need-satisfaction effect was considerably larger than the other two
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 10
To test our second hypothesis, that the differences in well-being is mediated by
relatedness need satisfaction, we conducted a within-subject mediation analysis using
bootstrapping procedure via MEMORE Macro for SPSS (Montoya & Hayes, 2017) with 5000
bootstrap samples (see Figure 1). As expected, relatedness need satisfaction mediated the
difference between making others happier versus making self happier on SWB, which was
indicated by the 95% confidence interval for indirect effect which did not include zero [.17, .83].
Two additional mediational analyses, one for competence and one for autonomy, showed that the
other two basic psychological needs did not mediate the effect.
Study 1 found support for both of our hypotheses, suggesting that trying to improve the
mood of others leads to higher levels of own SWB compared to trying to improve one’s own
mood and happiness. Moreover, this effect can be explained via SDT’s need-based perspective –
when focusing on others’ well-being we better satisfy one of our own basic psychological needs
(relatedness), which in turn leads to higher levels of SWB.
However, this study had limitations. First, the design of the study was retrospective,
which might have led to inaccuracy in remembered feelings and events. Additionally, the within-
person design creates the possibility that participants compared the two conditions to each other,
applying a (perhaps-mistaken) lay belief that making others happy “ought” to be more
rewarding. Still, we did not find an order effect of condition, indicating that the effect found
cannot be solely explained by the within-subject design. Another alternative explanation for the
results, not examined in Study 1, is that simply having been with another person, without
specifically having tried to make them happy, explains the higher levels of well-being. This
We also conducted mediation analyses with all three basic psychological needs entered into the model
simultaneously. The results showed that only relatedness served as a mediator, as suggested by the confidence
intervals not including zero for relatedness indirect effect B = .32 (.08, .65) and including zero for direct effect B =
.28 (-.24, .80).
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 11
suggests that an important control condition might be “mere social experience,” with no specific
agenda regarding the other’s state of mind.
In Study 2 we sought to replicate the finding that focusing on making others happier
rather than the self leads to greater happiness, using a between-subjects experimental design
instead of a repeated-measures retrospective design. Additionally, we asked participants to
perform the behavior, rather than rely on recollections. Moreover, we wanted to rule out the
alternative explanation that it is simply being with others that accounts for the effect, rather than
purposefully trying to improve their well-being. Therefore, we hypothesized that participants
assigned to actively trying to make someone else happier would show a greater increase in
subjective well-being compared to those assigned to engage in a mere social interaction, as well
as compared to those assigned a self-happiness focus. We also expected that the other-enhancing
group would be resultantly higher in levels of felt relatedness, and that relatedness would play a
mediating role in the increased subjective well-being.
Participants were 119 students from the introductory psychology course at a large
Midwestern University who participated to fulfill course requirements. The study was approved
by the Institutional Review Board prior to data collection. We recruited participants throughout
the semester to get as many participants as possible. Ages ranged from 18 to 22 (M = 19.01, SD
= 1.13); 82% percent of the participants were White, and 55% were women. Ninety six
participants participated in the follow-up portion of the study within the timeframe instructed
and/or followed all the instructions; the other 23 participants were excluded from the analyses
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 12
(one did not complete the follow-up in time, two reported not doing the activity they were
instructed to do, and 20 did not complete the second survey at all)
. We conducted post-hoc
power analysis using G*Power which showed that achieved power was .78.
An initial online survey consisted of demographic assessments and a baseline assessment
of SWB. In this survey, participants were randomly assigned to one of the three conditions: make
self happier (n = 30), make another happier (n = 30), or socialize (n = 36) (see Table S1 in
supplemental materials for detailed instructions). They were instructed to participate in the
assigned activity before 8 PM. After participants were notified of their experimental task, they
were asked what activity they were planning to do. At 8 PM, participants received a link to a
second online survey, which assessed their SWB and need-satisfaction during the activity.
Participants were instructed to complete this second survey by the end of the day. Control
questions also assessed how much time and money participants spent on the assigned activity.
All the outcome variables and conditions of the study are reported.
Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction. To measure need satisfaction derived from the
activity we used the same measure as in Study 1, worded: “How did this activity make you feel?
"After doing this activity I felt..."” Cronbach’s alphas were .88 for relatedness, .70 for
competence, and .78 for autonomy.
SWB. To measure subjective well-being of participants, we used the Satisfaction with
Life Scale (SWLS; Diener et al., 1985), which consists of five items rated on a 7-point Likert
Scale (e.g., “I am satisfied with my life”, α = .87). To measure PA and NA we used the same
We conducted attrition analyses and found that those who remained in the study and those who dropped out did not
vary in terms of SWB (F(1,113) = 1.96, p = .164), gender (F(1,116) = 1.00, p = .319), or the condition that they
were assigned to (F(1,118) = .05, p = .830).
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 13
measure as in Study 1 (α = .90 for PA and α = .85 for NA). We again summed the SWLS and PA
scores and subtracted the NA score to calculate aggregate SWB scores (α = .86).
Table 2 provides means and standard deviations as a function of condition. As can be
seen, there was a failure of random assignment, in that T1 SWB was greater in the “make other
happy” group than the other two groups. However, this was not a problem since we planned to
employ ANCOVAs which would control for this difference.
A planned comparison analysis via between-subject ANCOVA controlling for baseline
subjective well-being level (where other happy group was coded as 1, and self happy and
socializing group coded as -.5) showed that there was a significant difference between the
groups, F(2,93) = 4.93, p = .012, d = .55. Participants who were asked to make someone else
happy showed significantly higher level of SWB after engaging in the activity compared to
participants in the other two conditions.
A planned contrast comparing the felt need satisfaction after the activity for all three
experimental conditions showed a significant difference between groups on the relatedness
variable, F(2, 93) = 10.11, p = .003, d = .63
. This demonstrated that relatedness was
significantly higher for the participants who were instructed to make someone else happy, and
there was no significant difference between participants who did a self-focused activity or
A planned contrast analysis was also done controlling for T1 SWB, which resulted in a significant difference in
relatedness for the group who was instructed to makes others happy compared to the other two groups, F(2, 93) =
5.31, p = .024, d = .51.
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 14
Finally, we found no effects of the amount of money and time spent on the activity, nor
of the type of the activity participants chose. There was also no effect of gender. Moreover,
controlling for these variables does not change the effect.
We performed a mediation analysis to test if the increase in level of subjective well-being
in the other-focused happiness-condition was achieved via the sense of relatedness controlling
for the baseline level of SWB. We used contrast coding to compare the other-focused condition
to the other two conditions combined, as main effect analyses did not show significant
differences between these two latter groups. Therefore, the contrast variable was used as the
predictor variable in the mediation analysis (other = 2, self = - 1, socializing = - 1). In this
analysis we also controlled for the orthogonal control contrast (other = 0, self = - 1, socializing =
1). The coding scheme was performed following the procedure suggested by Hayes and Preacher
(2014). The mediation analyses were done via a bootstrapping procedure using PROCESS macro
for SPSS (Hayes, 2013) with 5000 bootstrap samples. Results are shown in Figure 2. The 95%
confidence interval did not include zero [.01 to .30], which suggests that relatedness mediated
the effect of other-focused happiness-promoting activity on subjective well-being. Two
additional analyses again showed that the other two basic psychological needs did not mediate
Results replicated and extended the Study 1 findings, via an experimental design. We
demonstrated that it is not simply social interaction with another person that drives the effects of
other-directed happiness-boosting activities on people’s own subjective well-being levels. We
Interestingly, when all three basic psychological needs were tested for mediation simultaneously, neither of them
emerged as significant mediators, and the direct effect of the model remained significant (B = .36 (.03, .69)).
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 15
also showed that other-focused activity led to more relatedness need fulfillment, but not to more
autonomy or competence need fulfilment. Moreover, the effect of other-focused happiness
activity on the participant’s own SWB was mediated by relatedness need-satisfaction. It is
important to note, however, that the experimental conditions differed in SWB levels at baseline,
for unknown reasons. This calls for caution in interpretation of the results of this study. In the
next study, we attempted to replicate these experimental results as well as explore other variables
which might explain the effect.
Studies 1 and 2 showed that engaging in other-focused happiness improving activity
leads to higher well-being and that this boost in well-being was explained by relatedness need
satisfaction. However, these studies only focused on the well-being of the actor initiating the
interaction, and not the target. By looking only at one person within the interaction we might not
be doing justice to the shared and rich dyadic experience that is created by one person’s attempt
to make another person happy. In Study 3, we also measured the target’s SWB, after the activity
had taken place. As discussed earlier, we wanted to investigate a possible dyadic spillover of
positive experience occurring between the two participants in the dyadic interaction. We
expected that being a target of another person’s activity, whose sole purpose is to make the target
happier, should be associated with the target’s SWB, as that was the goal of the activity. We also
thought that this increase in the SWB of a target person would play a role in the increased SWB
in the actor, supporting a spillover effect conception of how new happiness is attained. We also
measured the felt relatedness need-satisfaction of the target person, expecting that it would be
boosted by the participant’s happiness attempt and might account for the effects of that attempt
on the participant’s own SWB.
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 16
However, it is also possible that the actual feelings and state of the target are not as
important as the actor’s own perceptions of the target. Maybe just thinking that one has made
another happier is more important than the target’s actual feelings. To allow for this possibility
we measured participants’ perceived success at making the other happier, while also measuring
the effort that they reported putting into the assigned activity.
Participants were 163 psychology students who participated in exchange for research
credit. Their ages ranged from 18 to 25 (M = 19.43, SD = 1.24). The study was approved by the
Institutional Review Board prior to data collection. Similar to Study 2, we aimed to recruit as
many participants as we could during the semester. Eighty two percent of the participants were
Caucasian, and 60% were women;141 participants (65 in the “make self happy” condition and 76
in “make other happy” condition) participated in the follow-up portion of the study within the
timeframe instructed and/or followed all the instructions (eight reported not doing the activity
they were instructed to do, and 14 did not complete the second survey at all)
. Participants in the
‘make other happy’ condition also supplied the email address of a particular person who was to
be the target of their assigned activity. That person was sent a survey (after the happiness-
boosting activity occurred), which they were asked to complete in exchange for a $5 gift card.
We were able to recruit 50 targeted others for this sub-sample. Again, we conducted post-hoc
power analysis using G*Power that showed the power of .76.
We conducted attrition analysis and found that those who remained in the study and those who dropped out did not
vary in terms of SWB (F(1,162) = .01, p = .995), gender (F(1,161) = .02, p = .887), or the condition that they were
assigned to (F(1,162) = 1.74, p = .236).
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 17
The procedure was similar to Study 2, and the study took place completely online, in two
parts. First, participants completed the first part of the online questionnaire, before 2 PM on the
day of the activity. In this first part, we measured their current well-being level, before randomly
assigning them to experimental condition. In Study 3 we changed the instructions slightly in
order to allow for social interaction in the self-focused condition (see Table S2 in supplemental
materials for detailed instructions). This change in the instructions allowed for participants to
interact with others as a legitimate strategy for improving one’s own mood and happiness.
Additionally, they were asked what they were planning to do specifically.
At 8 PM that evening, participants received the follow-up survey which assessed their
well-being and basic psychological needs satisfaction, and which also asked the control
questions (how much money and time they spent on the activity, and what did they do
specifically). Participants were also asked to rate to what extent they succeeded in improving
someone else's (or their own) mood and happiness and how much effort did they put into
improving someone else's (or their own) mood and happiness. For those in a ‘self happy’
condition, we also asked them if they did the happiness boosting activity alone or with others.
At the same time, a similar questionnaire was sent to the target person of the activity. It
also assessed subjective well-being and psychological needs satisfaction.
All the outcome variables and conditions are reported. We also tested a number of
moderators in this study and these results are included in the supplemental materials.
SWB and Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction. These variables were assessed using
the same methodology described in Study 2. In terms of the main participant’s assessments,
Cronbach alphas for need-satisfaction were .85 for relatedness, .66 for competence, and .68 for
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 18
autonomy. Cronbach’s alpha for PA was .90, for NA it was .87, and for SWLS it was .86. As
before, we aggregated the scores into one measure of SWB (α = .89).
Effort and Success. We also measured how much effort participants put into the activity
and how successful they thought they were with two questions using a slider scale from 1 to 100.
These included, “How much effort did you put into…” and “To what extent did you succeed
in…” improving someone else's mood and happiness (or your mood and happiness)?
Results and Discussion
Table 3 provides means and standard deviations for conditions. Analyses first sought to
replicate the Study 2 results. We conducted a between-subject ANCOVA controlling for
participant’s baseline subjective well-being level, finding a significant difference between the
two experimental conditions, F(1,139) = 4.88, p = .029, d = .35. Participants asked to improve
someone else’s mood and happiness experienced a higher level of SWB then those asked to
focus on their own mood and happiness.
Similarly, for relatedness need satisfaction, we conducted a one-way ANOVA comparing
relatedness need-satisfaction between the two experimental conditions. We found a significant
difference between groups on the relatedness variable, F(1, 139) = 24.91, p < .001, d = .87, such
that relatedness was higher for the participants who were instructed to make someone else happy.
Also, we did not find a significant difference between the groups for autonomy or competence
need-satisfaction. Additionally, we again found no effect of the control variables or of gender no
effect of the effort participants reported to put into the activity they were assigned to do. Within
the “make self happy” condition we also found no difference in SWB between those who were
engaged in improving their own mood and happiness alone (n = 37) or with others (n = 22). This
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 19
again shows that it is not just simply interacting with others that really matters for SWB, but
rather, having the goal of improving someone else’s happiness.
Similar to Study 2, we performed mediation analysis to test if the differences in
subjective well-being between the groups was achieved via differences in experienced
relatedness using the same procedure as before. The 95% confidence interval did not include
zero [.17 to .98], which suggests that relatedness mediated the effect of other-focused happiness-
promoting activity on subjective well-being (see Figure 3 for details). In other words,
participants in the ‘make other happy’ condition reported higher levels of SWB which was
mediated by a stronger experience of relatedness compared to those who were instructed to
improve their own happiness. Also, as in previous studies, the other two basic psychological
needs did not mediate the effect. All mediation analyses were independent.
The Role of a ‘Target’ of Happiness Boosting Activity
Since we only had information for a target participant in the “make another happy”
condition, we could not test mediational models of the condition differences. However, we were
able to test whether there was a correlational relationship between the experiences reported by
participants in this condition and the experiences of the target of their activity. As can be seen in
Table 4, there were no correlation between participant’s SWB and target’s SWB, nor between
their levels of need-satisfaction. Therefore, contrary to our “spillover” hypothesis, we were
unable to find a link between the SWB reported by participants and the SWB reported by the
target of their happiness boosting activity.
We also tested for simultaneous mediation. Similar to Study 2, the results showed that none of three basic
psychological needs emerged as significant mediators.
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 20
Finally, we examined what role the belief that our participants were successful at their
assigned activity played in this relationship. First, via regression analysis controlling for baseline
SWB, we found that self-reported success at the activity assigned was a significant predictor of
SWB at T2, β = .34, t(139) = 4.97, p < .001, collapsing across the two conditions. This suggests
that the subjective perception of success in the experimental task is associated with improved
SWB in both conditions. Next, we examined whether experimental condition moderated the
success effect on changes in SWB. A regression analysis found that there was a main effect of
success (β = .32, t(139) = 4.48, p < .001), main effect of condition (β = .68, t(139) = 2.27, p =
.025), as well as a success by condition interaction (β = .22, t(139) = 2.10, p = .038). These
results suggest that felt success played a more important role for those who were instructed to
improve their own happiness. This is not surprising, because participants can have a better grasp
of their own feelings and experiences than those of others.
Study 3 successfully replicated the main findings of Study 2, showing once again that
trying to make someone else happier leads to higher SWB than trying to make oneself happier,
and that this effect is mediated through fulfillment of relatedness need satisfaction. Additionally,
we were able to take an initial look at how the experience of the target of the participant’s
happiness boosting attempt relates to the observed effects. Contrary to our predictions, we found
no relationship between the SWB of the participants and the SWB of their targets. Neither was
there a relationship between the relatedness need satisfaction of participants and targets.
However, it is important to note, that we did not have baseline measures of SWB for targets, so it
is possible that participants and targets started at a different baseline for SWB and that this
explains the absence of the effect. Interestingly, we found that participant’s self-reported success
at the activity that they have been assigned was a strong significant predictor of their SWB at T2,
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 21
in both conditions. So, it appears that regardless of whether or not participants actually
succeeded at improving someone else’s mood and happiness, what really matters is whether
participants think they have succeeded. Unfortunately, we did not have a measure of success
from the targets of happiness boosting activity, which, in addition to baseline SWB scores for
targets, could have shed light on whether or not participants were actually successful.
In the first three studies we demonstrated the benefits of concentrating on improving
someone else’s happiness and mood rather than one’s own. However, a related question is
whether it is better trying to make someone else happy, versus having somebody else trying to
make us happy. In the last two studies we asked participants to do something in all conditions.
But what if we compare actively trying to make someone happier, to passively accepting the
same from others? We addressed this question in the next two studies. In Study 4 we returned to
a retrospective methodology, and asked participants to recall past events. We expected that
trying to make others happier would still be the best way for improving SWB comparing to being
a recipient of such efforts, because caring for another is an active process that has been linked to
health and well-being benefits that are stronger and more lasting (Inagaki et al., 2016, O’Brien &
Kassirer, 2019). As in the first three studies, we hypothesized that this effect should be explained
by relatedness need satisfaction.
Participants and Procedure
Participants were 175 students in an upper level psychology course from a large
Midwestern University who participated in exchange for course credit. The study was approved
by the Institutional Review Board prior to data collection. The sample size was limited by the
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 22
enrollment in the class. Ages ranged from 19 to 35 (M = 20.89, SD = 2.43). Fifty nine percent of
participants were female and 79% were White. The study was administered online, and the
materials for this study were a part of a larger assessment including other study’s materials
unrelated to the current study. We conducted post-hoc power analysis using G*Power that
showed power of .96.
The within-subjects design was similar to that of Study 1. Participants completed the
study online, where they were asked to recall both a recent time when they tried to make
someone else happier and a recent time when someone else tried to make them happier (in
). The specific prompt for the first condition was exactly as in Study 1,
and for the second condition it was as follows: “Think of a recent time someone in your life did
something to improve YOUR mood and happiness (for instance, something fun, like playing
your favorite song, went on a run with you if you like being active, or taking you out for lunch).
Write 3-5 sentences describing what THEY did for YOU.” As in Study 1, after participants
recalled and wrote about each time, subjective well-being and basic psychological needs
satisfaction derived from the activity were measured.
BPNS. The same measure as in Study 1 was used with a scale range from 1 to 5 (α = .91
for relatedness, α = .87 for competence, and α = 82 for autonomy).
SWB. The same measures as in Study 1 were used to assess positive and negative affect
with a scale range from 1 to 5. Cronbach’s alphas were .92 for PA and .94 for NA. We used a 1
item measure to assess satisfaction with life which read: “How satisfied with your life did you
feel after doing this?”. As before we calculated aggregate measure of SWB (α = .93).
Results and Discussion
There were no order effects, F(1, 167) = 1.63, p = .203.
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 23
Results are shown in Table 5. To test our first hypothesis, we conducted a paired-sample
t-test. As predicted, recalling a time when one tried to make another happier was associated with
more SWB at that time, then recalling a time when another tried to make oneself happy. Paired t-
tests also showed a significant difference such that recalling the other-targeted activity led to the
experience of more relatedness and competence compared to recalling being made happy by
others. No difference emerged for autonomy need satisfaction.
To test the mediating effect of relatedness need satisfaction we conducted a within-
subject mediation analysis using a bootstrapping procedure via MEMORE Macro for SPSS
(Montoya & Hayes, 2017) with 5000 bootstrap samples. Results are shown in Figure 4. As
expected, we found that relatedness need satisfaction mediated the difference between making
others happier versus making self happier on SWB, which was indicated by the 95% confidence
interval for indirect effect that did not include zero [.02, 21]. However, the mediation was only
partial, because the direct effect was still significant in this analysis. Contrary to our
expectations, a second analysis showed that competence also partially mediated the effect on
difference in SWB [.03, 26]. However, a third analysis showed that autonomy was still not a
This study extends the findings of Studies 1, 2 and 3 and indicates that trying to make
another happy is more beneficial for one’s well-being than when another is trying to do the same
for you. Again, we demonstrated that this effect can be at least partially explained by relatedness
need satisfaction. Unexpectedly, we found that competence was also a mediator. This might be
due to the difference in conditions compared to Studies 1 through 3. This time the comparison
condition was when someone else tried to make the participant happy, which takes away an
We also conducted a mediation analysis where all three basic psychological needs were entered simultaneously.
We found that only relatedness remained a significant mediator (B = .09, (.21, .07)), although the mediation was
only partial (B = 1.67 (1.95, 1.38)).
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 24
active role from the participants in that condition, perhaps resulting in higher competence in the
condition where they play an active role. However, the study used a retrospective methodology
and correlational design, which does not allow for inferences about causation. We address these
limitations in Study 5.
In this study we wanted to extend the findings of Study 4 and compare the effects of
making another happy versus being made happy by others, using an experimental methodology.
Additionally, in the first four studies, when we asked our participants to recall or engage in
improving others mood and happiness, it often involved a face-to-face interaction with that other
person. Previous research on prosocial behavior suggests that face-to-face interactions might not
be necessary (Martela & Ryan, 2016a), so we wanted to test whether if this is the case for this
particular effect. Additionally, in the first three studies when our participants tried to make others
happy, these others were friends and family members of participants. We wanted to test whether
the effect can be produced when the ‘others’ are strangers, unknown to the participants.
In this study, participants were approached on the street and were given two quarters,
either as a simple reward for completing the survey (control condition), to put in their own
parking meters (being made happy condition), or to put in another person’s meter (making others
happy condition). Moreover, we included two different versions within the latter category – one
in which the benefactor would not specifically know that their meter had been fed, and another in
which we asked participants to leave a note to make sure that the beneficiary knew that someone
had done a good deed for them.
We expected that there would be a significant omnibus difference between the
experimental conditions in the resulting level of SWB. Specifically, we expected that participants
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 25
in the control condition would have the lowest level of SWB, followed by participants in the
“feed your own meter” condition (conceptualized as the “others try to make me happy”
condition). However, these participants would have lower SWB than those in the “feed
somebody else’s meter” condition. Finally, we expected that participants in the “feed somebody
else’s condition and leave a note” condition would derive the highest level of SWB compared to
all other conditions. Additionally, we expected that the effect would again be mediated through
relatedness need satisfaction.
Participants and Procedure
Participants were 200 people approached on the streets in a Midwestern city. The study
was approved by the Institutional Review Board prior to data collection. We aimed to recruit 50
people per condition. Ages ranged from 18 to 85 (M = 29.04, SD = 12.92), and 51% were male.
One participant was excluded from the data analysis for suspected intoxication, and another
participant was excluded because they answered ‘4’ to every single item on the survey, leaving a
final sample of (N = 198). We conducted a post-hoc power analysis using G*Power that showed
power of .95.
Participants were approached on the street near parking meters and were randomly
assigned into one of four conditions. In the control condition they were just asked to fill out the
questionnaire in exchange for 50 cents. In the second condition, participants who had just parked
by a meter were approached and given two quarters to put in their parking meter, and then asked
to respond to the questionnaire. In the third condition, participants were approached close to the
meter which had already expired or was about to expire (10 min left or less) that was not theirs.
Research assistants told them that they were from a Positive Psychology lab on campus, studying
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 26
the effects of asking people to make other people happy by feeding their parking meters. They
were given two quarters to put into a nearby car’s meter, then asked to take the questionnaire.
The fourth condition was identical to the third, with the exception that after participants put the
money into another’s meter, they were also asked to leave a note under the windshield of the car
saying that they fed that meter. Only then did they respond to the questionnaire. All the variables
and the conditions are reported.
BPNS and SWB. To measure BPNS the same measure was used as in Study 2 and 3
(relatedness: α = .89, competence: α = .64, autonomy: α = .71). The same measures were used to
assess SWB as in Studies 2, 3 and 4. All items were rated on a Likert Scale from 1 (Strongly
Disagree) to 7 (Strongly Agree). Cronbach’s alphas for PA, NA, and SWLS were .90, .86, and
.88, respectively, and an aggregate SWB score was again computed from the three variables (α =
Results and Discussion
First, we used a one-way ANOVA to test for SWB differences between the experimental
conditions. As expected, we found that there was a significant omnibus difference, F(3,194) =
9.26, p < .001. Means, standards deviations, and post hoc pairwise comparisons between the
groups are shown in Table 6. Results showed that the fourth condition, where participants were
asked to feed someone else’s meter and then leave a note, showed the highest level of SWB
which was significantly different from the control condition and the condition in which
participants were given money for their own meter. Although the difference between the third
and fourth conditions was not significant, it was close at t(97) = 1.95, p = .054, CI = [-1.88, .02].
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 27
Next, we tested the differences for BPNS. As we would expect, we found no difference
between the groups for autonomy, F(3,194) = 2.05, p = .108. However, there was a difference
between the groups for competence (F(3,194) = 3.87, p = .010), with post hoc comparisons
showing that the difference was driven by lower competence in the control group. Participants in
the control condition were not asked to do anything, unlike in the three experimental conditions,
which supplies a potential explanation for the lower level of competence need satisfaction
reported by those in the control group. As expected, we found a significant difference for
relatedness, F(3,194) = 4.16, p = .007. Post hoc pairwise comparisons suggested that this
difference was driven solely by the fourth condition, which showed the highest level of
relatedness need satisfaction. It appears that leaving the note for the person whose meter
participants fed gave a boost to the relatedness need satisfaction of the participant, despite the
lack of face-to-face interaction. Interestingly, the third condition, in which participant feed
someone else’s meter but did not leave a note, did not differ in the level of relatedness from the
other conditions. One possibility is that leaving a note makes sure one’s good deed is recognized
by the stranger, which could be important for the satisfaction of the relatedness need in such
situations. However, another possibility is that by writing a note, participants in this condition
were given an additional opportunity to make someone else happy beyond just paying for their
meter – so they had a chance to do two happiness promoting deeds instead of one, which led to
more relatedness and SWB.
Similar to Study 2 and 3, we performed the same type of mediation analysis to test if the
difference in SWB between conditions was due to relatedness need satisfaction. For this analysis
we only compared two conditions – condition two (participants given money to put in their own
parking meter) and condition four (participants are asked to feed someone else’s meter and then
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 28
leave a note saying that they have done so). We reasoned that these conditions best mirrored the
comparison of Study 4, involving a situation where somebody else tried to make us happy and
we knew they were doing so, and a situation where we tried to make somebody else happy, and
the other was aware of these efforts.
We found that the 95% confidence interval did not include zero [.10 to .68], which
suggests that relatedness mediated the effect of other-focus on participant SWB (see Figure 5),
although the direct effect was not eliminated by including relatedness, which suggest that the
mediation was only partial. In other words, when participants concentrated on improving
another’s happiness, they felt more connected to them, which in turn resulted in a boost to their
However, it is important to mention that we assumed that feeding someone’s meter is an
instance of “trying to make that person happy.” It is possible that some of our participants did not
perceive it in this way, which is a limitation of this study’s design.
In Study 1, using a retrospective methodology, we found that recalling trying to make
someone else happier or improve their mood was associated with higher SWB than recalling
doing so for oneself. In Study 2, using an experimental methodology, we showed that doing
something to make someone else happier led to a higher increase in SWB compared to trying to
make oneself happier or spending time socializing with others. We were also able to replicate
this effect with a slightly different design in Study 3. In Studies 4 and 5, we used a new
comparison condition – being made happier by others. We again found that trying to make others
happy is a better way to one’s own happiness, even more than when others try to make us happy.
We also tested all three basic psychological needs as mediators simultaneously. Only relatedness emerged as a
significant mediator (B = .17 (.05, .34)), although the mediation remained partial (B = .63 (.32, .94)).
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 29
Additionally, we found that the difference between experimental conditions was
consistently mediated by relatedness need satisfaction, in all of the studies. As suggested by
SDT, people need to fulfill all of the three basic needs in order to live a fulfilling life (Ryan &
Deci, 2000a; 2000b). It is not surprising that relatedness need-satisfaction, specifically, would
result from an activity designed to make another person feel good. It is also important to note
that in most of the studies there was no significant difference between other basic needs
(autonomy and competence) between the conditions. There were differences connected to
autonomy in Study 1 and connected to competence in Study 1 and Study 4. However, these
effects were non-central to the phenomenon because in no cases did autonomy mediate the SWB
effects, and we found mediation for competence only in Study 4.
Importantly, in Study 3, we were able to bring in the experience of the target person of
the happiness boosting activity into the analyses. While we expected that there would be a
connection between the participants’ SWB and the SWB of the person who they tried to make
happier, we were unable to find such relationship. We were also unable to find a connection
between the relatedness need satisfaction derived from the activity by the participant and their
target. Since we did not have an opportunity to measure targets’ baseline SWB and need
satisfaction or perceived success of participants reported by targets, we cannot definitively
conclude that our participants did not succeed in improving mood and happiness of the targets.
These limitations in measurement might have contribute to the fact that we did not find support
for spillover effect that was found by Fowler and Christakis (2009).
Still, our hypothesis that the target’s experience is important for the participant’s SWB
was indirectly supported by the significant positive correlation between participant’s reported
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 30
success in performing the assigned activity and their SWB. In other words, participants who felt
that they succeeded in making someone else in their life happier felt happier themselves.
Studies 4 and 5 demonstrated that making others happier is a better way to one’s own
happiness even when compared to being made happy by others. Again, it appears that the key
difference lies in the satisfaction of the relatedness need which gives an extra boost to well-
being. In Study 5, we also showed that face-to-face interaction with the ‘target’ person is not
necessary – our participants still experienced benefits from trying to make others happy even
without ever seeing or talking to them, although the effect was stronger when they left that other
person a note referring to their good deed. Moreover, ‘targets’ in this study were complete
strangers, so the level of familiarity with the ‘target’ of the happiness boosting activity is not
necessarily important for the effect either.
Although this study is not longitudinal and we did not observe changes overtime, it seems
that if a person will engage in improving mood and happiness of others instead of their own,
incremental changes that they will receive from engaging in this behavior each time will add up
and lead to maintenance of elevation of SWB.
Our studies also support EAM that states that working on improving one’s own happiness
directly is not a viable way to becoming happier in life (Sheldon, 2016, 2018; Sheldon et al,
2019). Instead, focusing on eudaimonic endeavors, which includes shifting focus from self to
others, is a recommended way to personal flourishing.
Limitations and Future Directions
There are important limitations to the studies presented which suggest directions for the
future research. First, four out of five studies were done entirely online, and thus we did not have
full control over the experimental activities performed by the participants. Still, we asked our
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 31
participants if they followed the instructions of the study and were able to exclude participants
who did not. Future studies could employ a lab setting so that the effect can be tested in a fully
controlled environment. Additionally, our studies were not fully able to answer the question of
whether or not actual success at making another happier plays a role in participant’s
improvement in SWB levels. Although perceived success was shown to be important, the SWB
of targets did not predict participants’ SWB. However, the number of target participants was
quite small, and we also did not obtain baseline data from those targets. Relatedly, it would be
beneficial to examine the effect in a full actor-partner model, where both participants have a
chance to do something to improve mood and happiness of one another. Such a design would
allow for a better test of potential spillover effects between dyad members. Additionally, because
the outcome measure and mediators were measured during the same assessment, we cannot infer
causality from this correlational data, although the possibility is implied.
Additionally, the samples in our research provide a limitation. The sample sizes were
limited and mostly comprised of college students from a large Mid-Western university, limiting
the diversity of our samples. Moreover, post-hoc power analyses showed that studies 2 and 3
were underpowered, with power slightly lower than .80 cutoff. Finally, it is important to note
that this study did not examine effects in the long-term, instead focusing on a single recalled or
induced experience. Future research might try to test the “make other happy” strategy in a
longer-term context, or as an overall life-strategy.
The results of these studies extended findings from previous research by showing that
people derive boosted personal happiness from attempts to make other people happy – an
approach that might seem counterintuitive for a lot of people at first. These boosts were greater
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 32
compared both to the effects of trying to make themselves happy, and the effects of others trying
to make them happy. In addition to showing that this counterintuitive way to personal happiness
is more effective, we also explained, at least to a degree, why this effect occurs. Specifically, we
showed that relatedness need satisfaction is an important mediator of this difference. Finally, this
research was the first to consider how the experience of the target of the happiness-boosting
activity relates to the experience of the person performing such activity. Although we did not
find a connection, we hope that future research will examine this issue in greater detail.
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 33
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HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 38
Means, Standard Deviations, and t-tests for Study 1
SWB (Self vs. Other)
Autonomy (Self vs. Other)
Competence (Self vs. Other)
Relatedness (Self vs. Other)
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 39
Means for Time 1 and Time 2 Assessments (Study 2)
Note. Standard deviations appear in parentheses below means. Means with differing subscripts
within rows for each time of the testing are significantly different at the p < .05 level based on
Fisher’s LSD post hoc paired comparisons.
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 40
Means for Time 1 and Time 2 Assessments (Study 3)
Note. Standard deviations appear in parentheses below means. Means with differing subscripts
within rows for each time of the testing are significantly different at the p < .05 based on one
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 41
Notes. N’s for the Participants (P) ranged from 131 to 141, and N’s for the Target (T) ranged
from 48 to 50 due to missing data. * p < .05, ** p < .01.
Correlations between Participant’s Measures at Time 2 Assessment and the Target (Study 3)
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 42
Means, Standard Deviations, and t-tests for Study 4
Other Made P Happy
P Made Other Happy
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 43
Means for Study 5
$ for own meter
$ for other’s meter
$ for other’s meter
Note. Standard deviations appear in parentheses below means. Means with differing subscripts
within rows for each time of the testing are significantly different at the p < .05 based on Fisher’s
LSD post hoc paired comparisons.
HAPPINESS AND OTHERS 44
Figure 1. Conceptual represetation of within-subject mediation analysis using MEMORE macro
for SPSS (unstandardized coefficients and 95% confidence intervals are displayed. *p <.05)
(Montoya & Hayes, 2017).
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Figure 2. Mediation model for Study 2. Unstandardized coefficients are displayed. *p <.05.
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Figure 3. Mediation model for Study 3. Unstandardized coefficients are displayed. *p <.05.
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Figure 4. Mediation model for Study 4. Unstandardized coefficients are displayed. *p <.05.
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Figure 5. Mediation model for Study 5. Unstandardized coefficients are displayed. *p <.05.