Putting Others First Is Healthy If You Do It the Right Way
In times of crisis, it is common to valorize putting others first. Yet, you might wonder whether being the kind of person who puts others first is unequivocally good. There’s a current of resistance to this idea in popular culture — “That’s the problem with putting others first; you’ve shown them that you come second” is a common aphorism. And experts are emphasizing the importance of self-care and the risks of self-neglect in these stressful times.
So, which is it?
Recent research in philosophy and psychology suggests it depends. Tending to put others first can be very good for you. It can promote your satisfaction with life, give your life meaning, help you cope with stress, and promote your development of other positive character strengths that enhance the quality of your life and relationships.
But if putting others first is motivated by less healthy reasons, it loses these strong connections to positive life outcomes. It even brings about greater stress and risk of depression and is associated with neurotic tendencies that promote negative life outcomes. Whether the behavior helps or hurts you all depends on why you are putting others first.
It used to be that psychological research devoted to traits involving putting others first focused almost exclusively on negative tendencies. For example, in the late ’90s, researchers developed what is known as the “unmitigated communion” scale. This was designed to measure an extreme tendency to prioritize others’ interests, and researchers thought it would predict risks of depression in women.
They were right: The scale they developed, which included statements such as “I always place the needs of others above my own” could account for gender differences in depression. Women tend to score higher on the scale, and their higher scores tend to track depressive symptoms. Unmitigated communion is predictive of lower self-esteem and higher self-neglect.
A person might prioritize others’ interests because they value each person’s interests equally, but they also value the kinds of interpersonal unions that become possible when promoting others’ interests.
Putting others first has been associated in a similar way with codependency. In 2012, researchers in Australia developed a self-report questionnaire for codependency that included the statements “I often put the needs of others ahead of my own” and “I always put the needs of my family before my own needs.” The questionnaire was able to reliably predict whether or not the person completing it was a member of Codependents Anonymous, a support group for people struggling with codependency. Higher scores on the scale were also correlated with known risk factors for codependency, such as family dysfunction and stress.
While putting others first was part of what these scales measured, it wasn’t the whole of it. The scales also included items designed to assess participants’ need to control others and tendencies to bind up their own happiness excessively with the happiness of others. In other words, when understood holistically, the scales weren’t just measuring the participant’s tendency to put others first but their tendency to put others first for certain narrow reasons: because this is the only way they can maintain adequate control over others or because it is the only way they can achieve happiness.
As a philosopher, it struck me that these are not the only reasons why a person might tend to put others’ interests ahead of their own. I started to think about whether there were any positive motivations for putting others’ interests first. Eventually, I settled on the following idea.
A person might prioritize others’ interests because they value each person’s interests equally, but they also value the kinds of interpersonal unions that become possible when promoting others’ interests. Because it’s more likely that you will promote these interpersonal unions when you promote others’ interests (as opposed to when you promote your own interests), you might have a preference for doing the former. We can call the tendency to put others’ interests first in this way “others-centeredness.”
In collaboration with two psychologists, I’ve recently tested how others-centeredness compares with unmitigated communion, described earlier. We found that others-centeredness has stronger positive relationships than unmitigated communion does with a person’s satisfaction with life, presence of meaning in life, ability to cope with stress, and other positive tendencies such as kindness, forgiveness, and fairness.
Opportunities to put others first abound for most of us right now.
We also found that while unmitigated communion has some positive relationship with satisfaction with life and the presence of meaning in life, this relationship is fully mediated by others-centeredness. In other words, the good outcomes of unmitigated communion are due to the overlap between unmitigated communion and others-centeredness and not due to what is unique to unmitigated communion. Similarly, we found that unmitigated communion, though not others-centeredness, is predictive of stress and neuroticism. Thus, while others-centeredness bears stable positive relationships with positive life outcomes, unmitigated communion does not; and while unmitigated communion carries certain risks for negative life outcomes, others-centeredness does not.
Opportunities to put others first abound for most of us right now. We might put others first by abiding by social distancing measures, by working from home, by supporting struggling businesses, by making personal protective equipment for those who need it, by giving to charity, and so on. In all of this, it’s important to reflect on our motivations for putting others first. We shouldn’t put others first because this is the only way we can control others or the only way we can achieve happiness. Instead, we should do it because we value others and ourselves and because we value being connected with others.
Being connected with others is especially tricky right now. But it’s still possible. We can choose to live in a way that actively builds connections with others. It can be as simple as looking someone in the eye and smiling at them while out walking rather than treating them like a 12-foot wide obstacle to your path. It can be through finding creative ways to celebrate or encourage others from a safe distance, as some have done in drive-by birthday parties and the like.
We’re all in this together. One of the most beautiful things about putting others first in a healthy way is that it focuses precisely on this connection and deepens it.