Research & Insights

How To Avoid Do-Gooder Burnout

New research suggests that setting concrete goals can help people in the business of doing good do so without burning out.

These findings come from a series of experiments conducted by researchers Melanie Rudd of the University of Houston, Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University, and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School. The research is forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

It’s been well-documented that helping other people is a good way to increase our own happiness. But Rudd, Aaker, and Norton were interested in whether framing good deeds abstractly (“make someone happy”) or concretely (“make someone smile”) made people feel better.

For example, one experiment divided seventy participants into two groups. One group was given the following instructions: “During this study, we ask that you pursue the following goal: Support environmental sustainability.” The other group was told that, “During this study, we ask that you increase the amount of materials or resources that are recycled or reused.”

Participants had 24 hours to complete their goal before returning for a follow-up survey which asked about their expectations of the project and how happy they felt. The researchers found that people given the concrete goal – increasing the amount of materials recycled – “felt that their act created more personal happiness” than people who were simply told to support sustainability.

Another experiment involved a similar set-up. Ninety two students were told that they would be completing a task designed to either “give those who need bone marrow transplants greater hope” or “give those who need bone marrow transplants a better chance of finding a donor.” The students were then given fifteen minutes to prepare flyers to help recruit bone marrow donors.

Again, the researchers found that the participants who were given the concrete task of helping people find a bone marrow donor had a greater increase in happiness than the participants with the abstract task of giving transplant patients hope.

These findings have big implications for movement builders working to keep their teams involved or even for their campaign’s call to action. “When givers expect to change the lives of others through volunteering and other prosocial acts,” Rudd, Aaker, and Norton explain, “a perceived failure to accomplish such large goals can lead to frustration and disappointment – making helping a negative rather than a positive influence on givers’ happiness.”

“Our results suggest that encouraging givers to re-frame their prosocial goals in more concrete terms might generally reduce helper burnout, which could in turn lead to a more sustainable pattern of prosocial behavior.”

Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

Melanie Rudd, University of Houston
Jennifer Aaker, Stanford University
Michael I. Norton, Harvard Business School

Posted: September 21, 2015
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