Putting Others First Is Healthy If You Do It the Right Way
Research into what motivates our supportive behaviors
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…