Study of newlyweds' behaviour shows compassion towards others is good — for you

You might expect that showing kindness to your partner will make them feel good. You might be surprised to know that it might make you feel even better.
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You might expect that showing kindness to your partner will make them feel good. You might be surprised to know that it might make you feel even better.

A study from researchers at the University of Rochester and Florida Atlantic University, published online in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Emotion in January, found data suggesting small acts of compassion can boost your own emotional well-being – even if your spouse doesn't notice.

The study, titled "Compassionate Acts and Everyday Emotional Well-Being Among Newlyweds," looked at responses from 175 newlywed couples (the couples were heterosexual, lived in North America, were married within the last 16 months and were under the age of 50) over a two-week period in 2010 and 2011. During that period, researchers asked each husband and wife to self-report in a daily diary, answering 10 "yes" or "no" questions about the compassionate behaviour they displayed that day, such as "Today, I willingly modified my plans or activities for my partner's sake," and 10 corresponding questions about whether their partner engaged in the same acts. Couples also answered questions about their daily well-being.

Newlyweds were chosen because researchers wanted to explore compassion at a time in relationships when compassionate behaviour and high life satisfaction is expected, but also when challenges of day-to-day life are coming into play, said Michael Maniaci, one of the study's lead authors and an assistant professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University.

Looking at daily diary responses from each spouse, researchers found that both donor and recipient benefitted emotionally when the compassionate act was noticed by the recipient, but also that the donor also benefitted emotionally when the recipient didn't explicitly notice the act. They determined if the other partner noticed by matching up the daily diaries. Findings were similar for both wives and husbands.

Maniaci said the results suggest compassionate behavior may be its own reward.

"You might expect that engaging in sacrifices or doing something to express compassion for your partner… may have personal costs," he said. "But not only did we find the opposite – that engaging in compassionate behaviour was associated with improved emotional well-being for both the donor and recipient – but that the effects on the donor actually were stronger than the effects on the recipient."

Maniaci said the findings support the notion that focusing on your spouse's well-being and acting for the good of them may have benefits for both partners.

"I'm not surprised by what they found," said Myriam Mongrain, a professor in the department of psychology at York University who was not involved in the study. "It's not the first study to find that the provider of compassion has everything to gain regardless of whether the recipient is benefiting or not."

Mongrain, whose work also focuses on compassion, said it's easy to see why compassion is important for both spouses in relationships.

"If you imagine yourself with a boyfriend or a partner, and you start to feel judgmental towards them… it creates distance, it creates a cold front so to speak," she said. "I think the study is saying that to be able to see your partner in that way — to be compassionate rather than judgmental…you'll find you feel much happier."

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends. Find her on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.