The Rewards of Compassionate Acts

by Jennifer Griffith

The Bottom-line First: Is compassion really its own reward? In this study, the authors found that small, daily acts of compassion for your spouse improve both your spouse’s well-being and your own. Although the effect is greatest when spouses mutually recognize these selfless acts, even when a spouse does not notice an act it still improves the well-being of the giver. 

You come home from a long, stressful day of work eager to eat dinner, kick back, and relax. Knowing you’ve had a hard day, your spouse makes an extra effort to have some of your favorite foods ready for dinner and a movie you’ve been wanting to see is already in the DVD player to watch afterward. But coming home distracted and stressed, you don’t even notice your spouse’s efforts. Although these acts of kindness may have gone unrecognized, does this mean your spouse’s efforts were wasted? Researchers from the University of Rochester and Florida Atlantic University have recently been studying just this question: What are the effects of compassionate acts on emotional well-being, and are those effects sustained even if the acts go unnoticed?

In their study, “Compassionate Acts and Everyday Emotional Well-Being Among Newlyweds,”[1] researchers followed 175 newlywed couples[2] over the course of two weeks to explore the effect of compassionate acts on both the donor (the one performing the compassionate act) and the recipient. They defined compassion as being open, warm, and putting a spouse’s needs ahead of one’s own. Using online daily diaries, the newlywed participants recorded both their own and their partner’s compassionate acts each day for two weeks, as well reporting on their emotional well-being and satisfaction. A series of hits (impact of a compassionate act enacted by “Jack” and perceived by “Jill”) and misses (impact of compassionate acts enacted by “Jack” but not perceived by “Jill”) in the participants’ daily diaries were then coded and analyzed for their effects on well-being. (They analyzed how compassionate acts on the previous day affected change in well-being the next day.) Here is a summary of their findings:

  • Husbands’ and Wives’ Perceived Compassionate Acts Differed. Researchers found that while husbands and wives generally agreed about the wives’ compassionate acts, husbands recorded that they reported more compassionate acts than their wives perceived. However, as a general rule, if a spouse performed a compassionate act, the other partner noticed it.
  • Compassionate Acts Benefit the “Recipient” and the “Donor.” An offered compassionate act had a strong effect on individual emotional well-being and daily life satisfaction of both partners. And the compassionate act on the emotional well-being of the “donor” was significant even if the spouse didn’t recognize what had been done. Compassion, it seems, is its own reward.
  • Noticing Partners’ Compassionate Acts Enhances Both Partners’ Well-being. However, the effects of compassionate acts on individual well-being were even stronger when partners noticed the act. Mutual recognition of compassionate acts is ideal.

The authors of this study are careful to note that their findings need to be replicated with diverse groups of couples (e.g., race, income) and with longer-married couples. Nevertheless, these findings have interesting implications for relationship education (RE):

  • Include Compassion. The results of this study serve as an important reminder to relationship educators that intervention can focus on more than just teaching communication skills to couples. Relationship educators can teach couples about the benefits of performing little, daily acts of kindness for their spouse. The improved emotional well-being and satisfaction of the giver and receiver then should strengthen the couple relationship. Furthermore, encouraging spouses to look for and recognize their partners’ small, compassionate acts should yield the greatest benefits.
  • Primed for Micro-interventions. In addition to integrating the value of small, daily compassionate acts into traditional skills-based RE programs, the “skill” of compassion giving and recognizing is something that could be taught to couples in brief, focused, micro-interventions. No lengthy programs is needed to help couples appreciate and employ the value of daily compassionate acts.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Reis, H. T., Maniaci, M. R., & Rogge, R. D. (2017). Compassionate acts and everyday emotional well-being among newlyweds. Emotion, 17, 751-763. doi:10.1037/emo0000281

[2] To qualify for the study, participants had to be less than 50 years old[2], and could not be drug/alcohol abusers or have a history of domestic violence or hospitalization for emotional disorders. Participants were an average of 28.2 years old and had been married on average for approximately 7 months.