Can One Be “Too Selfless” Towards Others?

By: Elizabeth Hopper, PhD

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How much should we help others? In our close relationships, is it better to care for others or to put our own needs first? You may have faced this dilemma yourself if your partner ever asked you to help with the dishes after a long workday, for example, or a friend asked you for an early morning airport ride.

According to a recent study, people who are motivated to care for others tend to fare well—but it is also important for us to not neglect self-care and our own needs.

In this study, published in Psychological Bulletin, the researchers explored communal motivation. People who are higher in communal motivation tend to be especially concerned about other people, and this concern motivates them to care for others. They tend to help others without keeping track of what each person “owes” the other (for example, think of the caregiving that a parent provides to a child).

The researchers conducted a meta-analysis—a study that aggregates the results of other research—of 100 studies (including some previously unpublished data) with a total of over 26,000 participants, mainly from Europe and North America. These studies had used questionnaires to measure participants’ and their partners’ well-being (their satisfaction with life and positive and negative emotions), their satisfaction and emotions in their relationships, and three types of communal motivation:

  • General communal motivation: Their overall level of concern for the well-being of other people (including people they are close to, as well as more casual acquaintances and even strangers).
  • Partner-specific communal motivation: Their willingness to care for and support a specific relationship partner (such as a romantic partner, friend, or family member).
  • Unmitigated communal motivation: Their willingness to support others selflessly, even at the expense of their own needs.

The researchers found that participants higher in general communal motivation, as well as partner-specific communal motivation, reported higher levels of well-being—and so did their relationship partners. Additionally, both they and their partners were happier in their relationships compared to people lower in those traits.

However, for people high in unmitigated communal motivation, the story was more complicated: Although participants and their partners were more satisfied with their relationships, they did not have higher personal well-being. In fact, in one analysis, participants who cared for others in this selfless way actually had lower well-being. In other words, communal motivation was linked to well-being and better relationships, but being too selfless actually seemed to have drawbacks.

This makes sense, given past research on altruism and helping. Although helping others can benefit our health, happiness, and relationships, being too caring can sometimes have downsides. For example, people who are especially selfless may end up feeling exploited in their interpersonal relationships, or burned out in their jobs.

So what should you do, if you tend toward extreme selflessness? Lead author Bonnie Le points out that the current study is correlational—and more research is necessary to determine how people high in unmitigated communal motivation can protect their well-being.

In the meantime, it could be important to make time for self-care. “One avenue for building mutually satisfying relationships would be to care for one another in ways that do not compromise one’s own personal needs and desires,” says Le, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management.

Additionally, Le suggests that extremely selfless people might benefit from choosing partners who share their selfless tendencies, in order to avoid being exploited in relationships. Then, even if you’re helping out with the dishes today, you know you’ll get help tomorrow.

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and appears with the center’s permission.
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