Asking for and accepting help – why do we often find this difficult?

“Can you help me?”

We all need help sometimes. Whether it’s shifting boxes when we move house, or being at a loss with a work problem, or when we currently cannot move around as we wish due to the measures required to combat corona. At some point in the course of your life, you will reach a point in which you need support.

Preferring not to ask for help

“Should I really ask?” Even when helping is normal, many feel uncomfortable asking for it. We prefer to invest three times the time to get something done, instead of articulating the words “Can you help me?”. We are afraid of appearing weak and thus leaving ourselves open to criticism. On the one hand we are afraid that not being able to do something ourselves will damage our reputation. We are afraid of what others think of us. On the other, we are afraid of a loss of self-esteem. In the end, asking for help means first admitting to ourselves that we want it. This contrasts with the basic attitude that we have to do everything by ourselves, and that it will work out somehow. So why should I ask? Ultimately, the question gives rise to the unpleasant possibility of help being refused. We expect a “no”, particularly when we get the feeling that the person we’ve asked has no time or could find it challenging to help out. We fear a refusal, so we console ourselves with the thought that “I don’t want to overburden them” and avoid the question entirely.
Of course, the fears described vary from one individual to the next, and they depend on the setting. However, it is possible to observe that we find asking for help more difficult that you might expect. What’s more, it’s not just asking for help that isn’t so simple. Accepting it isn’t either.

No thanks, I can cope

The principle of “reciprocal altruism” is deeply rooted in us for evolutionary reasons. This principle states that, when we help someone, we always expect to receive support at some point too:
“you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
And a relationship in which we give and take equally is actually very important to us. Asymmetrical relationships, in which one person gives more and the other benefits more, will make both parties unhappy in the long run.
This principle is presumably responsible for the fact that we carefully consider whether we want to accept help. Older people in particular are often unwilling to ask for help, and to accept it, because they feel they cannot return the favour. We want to be able to reciprocate! The result is that we respect being in someone’s debt. In the end, we might find it more difficult to reject a future request if we accept help now.

Helping makes you happy

Research on the subject of “what makes us happy?” at first glance contradicts the fact that we find it hard to accept help. Because “giving and receiving assistance” are among the things that make us happy in the long term! As happiness researcher Elisabeth Dunn has demonstrated, people who donate money to charity are happier than people who do not, regardless of their financial situations. At the same time, giving to charity seems to have approximately the same effect on happiness as doubling your earnings!
The effect of giving on happiness is therefore closely correlated to the how. Charitable giving alone is not enough to make us happy. What we need is an emotional connection. So that giving or helping also has an impact on our happiness, we must know what difference our support has made, and to whom.
If visible, personal help makes us happy, why do we respect asking others to help? The answer is found in “how” we ask.

How to ask for help successfully

Doing things that we are good at is great fun. The same is true of “asking for help”. How can I successfully ask for help, so that the other person doesn’t just say “yes” but also has fun helping me? Heidi Gant has grappled with this topic in depth and provides answers in both her book and a TED Talk:

  • Ask as specifically as possible. We like to help when we can demonstrate our ability, friendship or experience by doing so. And, when we support someone, we want to do it well. Nothing is less satisfying than helping and not achieving the desired effect! In order to assess whether we are capable of helping successfully, we need to know exactly what the issue is and why we are the right person to help out. Vaguely formulated queries with no explanation are more likely to be refused, because the danger exists that we won’t be able to give effective support and will then feel bad about this.
  • Just don’t apologise for asking. . If we tell the person we’re asking that we really don’t want to, but it’s an emergency, so unfortunately we need to ask for help, although we hate this from the bottom of our hearts, how will the other person feel pleased about helping us? As you have read, helping makes us happy when it makes the person we have helped happy too. A request for help should therefore be seen from the perspective of giving the potential helper the opportunity to make a valuable contribution (e.g., to a project or the solution to a difficult situation).
  • Ask in person. Although it is definitely easier to send your request by e-mail or text message, it is also much easier to refuse a written request! As you now know, supporting someone feels good only when there is an emotional and personal connection. We achieve this connection much sooner if we ask in person (or at least face-to-face by video conference).
  • Give feedback without fail. It is not helping in itself that makes us happy, but the knowledge that the help was good and effective. For this reason, when you receive help you shouldn’t just say thank you, but also let your helper know what effect the support achieved. Without fail, give descriptive, positive feedback! You will probably be happier to water the neighbour’s plants next time they are away on holiday if you get a “thank you very much, they look great. The one by the window has grown 10 cm” as an acknowledgement.

Articulating the words

Even though we like to think that we have everything well in hand, we all need help sometimes to be successful and happy. We should also absolutely put a request for help into words! We may have low expectations of spontaneous offers to help from our fellow human beings, but this is largely unjustified. On the one hand, it is difficult even for people close to you to recognise unexpressed needs. On the other, unasked-for help and advice is rarely well received! However, if you articulate the words “can you help me?” and so give the other person the opportunity to make a valuable difference personally, you will receive help much sooner.


Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688.
Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz, (2020). Soziale Ressourcen. Förderung sozialer Ressourcen als wichtiger Beitrag für die psychische Gesundheit und eine hohe Lebensqualität.
Halvorson, H. G. (2018). Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You. Harvard Business Review Press.
TED Salon: Brightline Initiative (Hrsg.). How to ask for help – and get a “yes” from Heidi Grant. [Video].
TED Conference (Hrsg.). (2019). Helping others makes us happier – bit it matters how we do it from Elizabeth Dunn. [Video].
Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology. 46: 35–57.

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