Do You Deserve It? The Science Behind Self-Indulgence

Do you remember the last time you rewarded yourself for the hard work you put into a project, an intense gym session, or a week of adhering to a super clean diet? Perhaps you indulged by treating yourself to your favorite ice cream spot or pizza delivery joint. Maybe you figured that you and your body require a well-deserved massage and spa treatment after a long week. Regardless of your personal means to achieve immediate gratification, these choices are often slightly unhealthy, expensive, or more time-consuming compared to our normal daily behavior.

Prosocial vs Self-Focused Behavior

Psychologist and researcher Katherine Nelson makes the distinction between two types of behavior that people engage in to boost personal happiness. One of these is prosocial behavior, or performing kind acts for others to boost their happiness and well-being. Beyond fostering social cohesion and a sense of belonging and purpose, this behavior also, in turn, promotes the happiness of the individual engaging in this prosocial behavior.

The other behavior is called self-focused behavior. A little more obvious and identifiable by name, this behavior describes the self-indulgent activities people perform to promote their own well-being. Popular culture unsurprisingly favors this behavior, encouraging people to focus on their own desires.

The design

In a recent study published in the psychology journal Emotion, researchers measured the psychological effects of both types of behaviors in an effort to explain which is more effective at promoting happiness. They divided participants into groups, one of which performed acts of kindness for themselves. Another group was instructed to visit elderly relatives or help friends carry groceries, modeling prosocial behavior. The third group was instructed to perform general acts of kindness for the world, such as picking up trash or donating to charity, while the fourth control group was simply instructed to write down their daily activities.

What did they find?

Researchers found that participants in both prosocial groups (acting in kind ways toward others and the world) demonstrated increased positive emotions with each ongoing week. These emotions included measures of joy, happiness, and enjoyment. Conversely, those who engaged in self-focused behavior did not differ in positive emotions or negative emotions, but displayed similar measures to the group that was instructed to simply record their day-to-day activities.

What about integrating the two?

Although this topic is not covered in Katherine’s study, one question regarding happiness and finding balance concerns mixing self-interest with helping others. What if there was a way to combine the two? What if one could help others by virtue of helping oneself?

I feel that musicians and artists do this constantly, manifesting happiness and enjoyment in others by engaging in their own expertise and passion.

What other ways might we be able to achieve both goals?