Looking For A Mood Boost? A New Study Reveals That ‘Retail Therapy’ Won’t Help, But Something Much Simpler Will

feeling good

Chances are that if you’re reading this at work on a Monday, you’re slightly bummed out right about now. The weekend’s over, the week stretches out before you, and your energy’s lagging just a little. But just because your mood’s down doesn’t mean that you can’t fix it. And that fix won’t come from taking your lunch hour to rush to the mall for some retail therapy. In fact, according to a new study, “treating yourself” (sorry, Donna) won’t fix your mood nearly as much as actually treating others well.

Published last week in Emotion, the study found that while giving ourselves little presents wasn’t an effective way to boost mood, people who participated in acts that helped others or were otherwise pro-social actually ended up feeling better about themselves and the world they live in.

The Huffington Post talked with Dr. Katherine Nelson, assistant professor of psychology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and lead author of the study, who said:

“I was not surprised that prosocial behavior led people to feel greater positive emotions, and in turn, greater flourishing,” Nelson said about the study.

“One thing that I found very interesting, however, was that when we direct these actions towards ourselves, we see no improvement in positive or negative emotions, nor do we see improvement in psychological flourishing,” she added. “I think this is important because people are often encouraged to ‘treat themselves’ as a way to feel good, yet our findings suggest that the best way to feel happy is to treat someone else instead.”

So does that mean you should stop doing nice things for yourself? Absolutely not. But the study–which involved 473 participants who either did something nice for themselves, for other people, or for the world for six weeks–did find that those who helped others (either on a personal or a “world-wide” level) actually felt better about themselves than those who treated themselves real nice in comparison to a control group that did absolutely nothing different.

“Doing things for others offers people opportunities to feel greater positive emotions, such as joy, contentment and love,” Nelson said. “People could feel greater positive emotions, and in turn psychological health, because by being kind to others, they are nurturing social relationships, or they could feel greater pride in themselves for doing a good deed.”

Why did this happen? According to Dr. Dacher Keltner–a professor at UC Berkeley–performing acts of good will towards others might lead to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that’s responsible for providing good feelings and motivates behavior that leads to a reward. The reward of doing something good for others? A feeling of doing something awesome for the world, according to Keltner.

This information isn’t just important to individuals who may be feeling a bit down, but to companies, institutions, and leaders who are tasked with making sure that the people that report to them have high levels of morale. Many companies already sponsor volunteer days and have “thank you walls” (a place where one might thank someone for doing something nice for them in the workplace) and the amount of research that supports the idea that being grateful to others (and receiving gratitude) can help one feel better, coupled with the new research that suggests that doing things for others might make one feel like they’re more connected will likely lead to more of this happening in schools and workplaces. And if that makes you feel good about getting up at 7 a.m. on a Monday and shuffling into work, then bring it on.