Go ahead, ask for help. It makes people happy
People routinely underestimate others’ willingness to help, new research shows.
We hesitate to ask for help because we don’t want to upset others, assuming our request will seem like an inconvenience to them. But often the opposite is true: people want to make a difference in people’s lives and they feel good— happy even — when they are able to help others, says Stanford University social psychologist Xuan Zhao.
Zhao’s research aims to help people create better social interactions in person and online where they feel seen, understood, connected and appreciated. His latest research appears in Psychological sciences.
Here, Zhao discusses research on how asking for help can lead to meaningful experiences and strengthen relationships with others, friends as well as strangers:
Q: Why is it difficult to ask for help? For someone who has trouble asking for help, what would you like them to know?
A: There are several common reasons why people find it difficult to ask for help. Some people may fear that asking for help will make them appear incompetent, weak, or inferior. Recent research by Kayla Good, a Stanford doctoral student, reveals that children as young as seven can hold this belief. Some people fear rejection, which can be embarrassing and painful. Others may be concerned about weighing down and inconveniencing others – a topic I recently explored. These concerns may seem more relevant in some contexts than others, but they are all very relevant and very human.
The good news is that these concerns are often exaggerated and misguided.
Q: What do people misunderstand when asking for help?
A: When people need help, they are often caught up in their own concerns and worries and do not fully recognize the prosocial motivations of those around them who are willing to help. This may introduce a persistent difference between how help-seekers and potential helpers view the same help event. To test this idea, we conducted several experiments where people interacted directly with each other to ask for and offer help, or imagined or remembered such experiences in everyday life. We consistently observed that help-seekers underestimated how willing strangers – and even friends – would be to help them and how positive caregivers would feel afterwards, and overestimated how helpful caregivers would feel. would feel embarrassed.
These patterns are consistent with Stanford psychologist Dale Miller’s work showing that when we think about what motivates others, we tend to apply a more pessimistic and self-serving view of human nature. After all, Western societies tend to value independence, so asking others to go out of their way to do something for us can feel wrong or selfish and can impose a somewhat negative experience on helping.
The truth is, most of us are deeply prosocial and want to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki’s work has shown that empathizing and helping others in need seems like an intuitive response, and dozens of studies, including my own, have shown that people often feel happier. after performing acts of kindness. These findings extend previous research by Stanford professor Frank Flynn and colleagues suggesting that people tend to overestimate the likelihood that their request for direct help will be rejected by others. Finally, other research has even shown that seeking advice can even increase the competence of the help-seeker is perceived by the advice-giver.
Q: Why is it especially important to ask for help?
A: We love stories of spontaneous help, and that may explain why random acts of kindness go viral on social media. But in reality, the majority of help only happens after a request has been made. It’s often not because people don’t want to help and need to be pressured to do so. On the contrary, people want to help, but they can’t help if they don’t know that someone is hurting or struggling, or what the other person needs and how to help them effectively, or if it’s it’s up to them to help – maybe they want to respect other people’s privacy or free will. A direct request can remove these uncertainties, so asking for help enables kindness and opens up opportunities for positive social connections. It can also create emotional closeness when you realize someone trusts you enough to share their vulnerabilities and working together toward a common goal.
Q: It seems that some requests for help are more difficult to ask than others. What does the research say about different types of help, and how can we use this information to help us understand how we should ask for help?
A: Many factors can influence difficulty seeking help. Our recent research has mostly focused on everyday scenarios where the other person is clearly capable of helping, and all you need is to show up and ask. In other cases, the type of help you need may require more specific skills or resources. As long as you make your request specific, meaningful, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound (also known as SMART criteria), people are likely to be happy to help and feel good about helping.
Of course, not all requests have to be specific. When we face mental health issues, it can be difficult to determine the type of help we need. It’s okay to reach out to mental health resources and take the time to figure things out together. They’re here to help, and they’re happy to help.
Q: You mentioned how cultural norms can prevent people from asking for help. What is one thing we can all do to rethink the role society plays in our lives?
A: Book on independent and interdependent cultures by Hazel Markus, director of the faculty of Stanford’s SPARQ, can shed a lot of light on this issue. Following his insights, I think we can all benefit from a little more interdependence in our micro and macro environments. For example, instead of promoting “self-care” and implying that it is people’s responsibility to sort out their own struggles, perhaps our culture could emphasize the value of self-care. each other and create safer spaces for open discussions about our challenges. and imperfections.
Q: What inspired your research?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by social interaction – how we understand and misunderstand each other’s minds, and how social psychology can help people form more positive and meaningful connections. That’s why I researched topics like giving compliments, discussing disagreements, sharing personal failures, creating inclusive social media conversations, and translating social and positive psychology research into everyday practices for the public. This project is also motivated by this general passion.
But a more immediate trigger for this project is reading academic work suggesting that the reason people underestimate their likelihood of getting help is because they don’t recognize how uncomfortable and embarrassing it would be for someone to say “no” to their request. I agree that people underestimate their chances of getting help on a direct request, but based on my personal experience I’ve seen a different reason – when people ask me for help, I often feel genuinely motivated to help them, more than feeling the social pressure and a desire to avoid saying no.
This project is to express my different interpretation on why people agree to help. And given that I’ve seen people who struggled for too long until it was too late to seek help, I hope my findings can offer them a little more comfort next time. that they can really use a helping hand and wonder if they should ask.
Source: Stanford University