We all know the expressions that it’s better to give than to receive. Psychologists have now empirically proven that being compassionate to a spouse is rewarding in and of itself.
The study showed that the emotional benefits of considerate acts are significant for the giver, irrespective of whether the recipient is even aware of the act, or not. For instance, if a husband notices that his wife’s car windshield is thick with snow, he may clean it before going to work. That act would boost his emotional wellbeing, regardless of whether his wife notices or not.
The research team was led by Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and the journal Emotion published the results. The participants in the study were 175 North American newlywed couples who had been married for an average of 7.17 months.
Reis explained that the objective of the study was to test a hypothesis postulated by Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama. Gyatso said, “compassionate concern for others’ welfare enhances one’s own affective state.”
Michael Maniaci of Florida Atlantic University and Ronald Rogge of Rochester were two of the psychologists on the team.
Participants were asked to keep a daily diary for two weeks and record those instances in which either spouse met the partner’s needs by putting aside personal wishes. In order for the researchers to assess the emotional wellbeing of the individuals, the participants were also asked to keep track of their daily emotional states for each day. To do this, they were given 14 negative and positive terms to use, such as sad, angry, hurt, calm, enthusiastic and happy.
Over the course of the 2 weeks, wives and husbands reported receiving and giving an average of .59 and .65 compassionate acts each day. Wives perceived less such acts than did their partners. The acts included such things as expressing tenderness for the spouse, doing something that showed that the partner was valued and changing personal plans for the sake of the partner.
Before the research started, the researchers expected that the biggest impact on the donor would be when the act was recognized by the recipient, as recognition would make the donor feel appreciated. They also believed the recipient would feel the most benefit when the act was recognized by both parties, in contrast to those times when one partner perceived an act of compassion that was performed unintentionally. Although those suppositions were confirmed, the researchers also discovered something unexpected.
Reis explained that although a recipient has to notice a compassionate act before they can benefit from it emotionally, recognition is not so much a factor for the donor.
The team discovered that donors benefit from compassionate acts, irrespective of whether the recipient explicitly notices the acts, or not. Surprisingly, the benefits for the donors was about 45 percent greater than for the recipients in those cases. This was determined by the self-assessment scales in the daily diaries and the effect was equally strong for women and men.
Reis interprets the results as meaning that “acting compassionately may be its own reward.”
Reis is now working with Peter Caprariello, an assistant professor of marketing at Stony Brook University and a Rochester alum. They are studying to what degree spending money on others has emotional benefits. The results thus far suggest that spending on others will only make a person feel better when the objective is to benefit that person. There are no emotional benefits when spending is done to impress them with generosity or vision.