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Be nice, feel good

May 21st, 2007

By Denise Fitzpatrick

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Michael Steger

Doing good for others makes us feel good.

That’s the conclusion of a recent study led by Michael Steger, assistant professor of educational and counseling psychology in the University of Louisville’s College of Education and Human Development.

Steger launched the study to find out what makes people happier: seeking pleasure or taking the harder road of trying to become a better person.

“I’ve always been interested in learning how people find meaning in life,” he said.

To answer that question, he and his colleagues asked a group of 65 college students to complete an online survey each day for three weeks. The students were asked to note how much time they spent in pleasure-seeking activities and how much time they spent in activities such as helping others and listening to friends’ problems.

The survey-takers also were asked whether they felt happy or sad and how purposeful their lives felt.

Those who spent more time in meaningful activities were happier and felt more life purpose than those who mainly sought pleasure, the study showed. To make sure the finding was valid, Steger’s team administered a nearly identical survey to another group of students over a four-week period.

The conclusion was the same.

“The results (of the study) present an enormously optimistic picture of people that, as a cynic, I was very happy to see,” Steger said.

The study, headed for publication in the Journal of Research in Personality, isn’t the first research project Steger has undertaken to learn more about why human beings react to life in different ways. Last year, while still at the University of Minnesota, he published a study showing that the way people express many positive personality traits often is a result of genetics.

Steger now is updating a section, “Meaning in Life,” for the second edition of “Handbook of Positive Psychology” published by Oxford University Press.

“More research on life meaning could help psychologists unite the many ways they try to understand the events, states, traits and institutions that define and determine human happiness,” he said. “Meaning matters.”

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