When you give something away to people in need or lend a hand in general, you feel good. Really good. Why is that?
Some people refer to this effect as the “helper’s high.” Doing good in the world makes you feel good, which makes you want to keep doing it. In other words, when you give of yourself for others’ good, your own brain and body lavish rewards on you.
There’s actually some science behind it, too.
Here’s how it works.
Pleasure centers in your brain wake up.
Before you even don your work gloves to plant trees or help your buddy move into his new place, your brain already starts getting excited at the mere prospect of doing something nice.
Translation? You don’t even have to physically help someone to start reaping the benefits of the helper’s high. You just have to think about it.
Neuroscientists have observed that thinking about good deeds activates the areas of your brain that are associated with pleasure. Whether you’re considering lending a helping hand or giving money to a charitable cause, those thoughts trigger feel-good brain activity in the same areas that light up when you eat delicious food or engage in a favorite pastime.
Your brain’s own rewards system comes into play here.
Because it feels so good to think about helping others — or to follow through and actually lend a hand — generosity becomes something that you want to practice again and again. It’s a win-win for both you and the people you help.
Your brain sends out satisfying chemicals.
The pleasurable effects of kind actions aren’t limited to momentary brain activity. When you’re generous, your brain releases a host of neurotransmitters designed to make you feel good in various ways. And the effects may stick around all day.
One chemical that you produce in response to helping others is serotonin. It can perk up your mood and reduce your anxiety level. Serotonin may also improve your sleep cycles.
Dopamine is another neurotransmitter that increases when you do good deeds. This crucial hormone is known for its ability to help you feel great, and its pleasure-inducing effects are like a reward for doing good things. Dopamine also encourages you to get up and get moving.
If you’re feeling less motivated these days, you may need a boost in dopamine.
Thinking about others takes the focus off of you.
It’s true. Doing good for someone else can bring you satisfaction. It also makes a real difference for a person in need.
There’s a lot of hardship in the world. And while you can’t help every single person on Earth all the time, chances are good that you can help someone right now where you live.
And volunteering will bring you face-to-face with some of those people.
Although you may not have the power to entirely transform their circumstances, you can do your own small part to help. Ideas:
- Collect clothing and other necessary goods for people in shelters.
- Volunteer at a nursing home, assisted living facility, hospital or other place where loneliness runs deep and people need extra support.
- Serve food at a soup kitchen, or volunteer to sort and distribute food at a local food pantry.
- Offer to do errands for people with limited mobility, like seniors or people with disabilities who might not be able to get to a grocery store as often.
- Transport older neighbors and friends to doctor’s appointments, hair appointments and other locales that they may not have a ride for.
In the process of donating your time and efforts to other people, you may start to think more about others’ needs and less about your own struggles.
And that shift in perspective often has the power to lift you out of the doldrums.
A word of caution, though: don’t get so wrapped up in other people’s struggles that you forget to take care of yourself when you need to. It won’t help anyone for you to get overwhelmed.
Set boundaries for yourself, and pull back when your mental health needs a break. Consider asking a friend to hold you accountable for self-care — and to share the load when you need a hand, too.
Lending a helping hand can do wonders for your social life.
Volunteering is often done in community with others, so contributing to a cause can increase your social connections. You’ll get to know the people you help as well as fellow volunteers with similar values.
Bonus? Better relationships can be transformative for your mental health.
People who build their social connectedness as they do good works exhibit fewer symptoms of depression than those who go it alone. If you’ve been feeling down and out, look for opportunities to team up with others for the greater good.
Also, showing generosity releases oxytocin in your body. This hormone may help you bond with others, making volunteer work the perfect place to strike up and maintain friendships.
Stress levels fall when you do things for others.
You now know that doing generous deeds releases chemicals like serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine. On the flip side, volunteering may reduce the amount of cortisol in your body.
High levels of this hormone are associated with chronic stress and its negative physical effects. Being overly stressed can mess up your sleep patterns, upset your stomach, lead to weight gain and cause unexplained pain.
Stress can also be detrimental to your mental health.
If you’re worried about the effects of long-term stress, finding relief through volunteer work may be just what the doctor ordered. Doing a good deed seems to bring down cortisol levels for a whole day, so just imagine the effect that daily generosity could have on your overall health.
Your blood pressure goes down, too.
If you want to keep your heart healthy, then learn to be generous.
One study demonstrated that altruism has lasting cardiovascular benefits. Participants underwent physical exams two years after giving money to others. The more generous their donations had been, the lower their blood pressure was during the follow-up assessment.
Another portion of that study evaluated how people’s blood pressure was affected by a three-week period of spending money on others. Researchers found that giving money away was as effective as exercise or medication at lowering blood pressure.
These cardiovascular benefits may have something to do with vasopressin, another hormone that your body releases when you do altruistic things. Vasopressin plays an essential role in regulating your blood pressure.
Doing good may even add years to your life.
Doing good for others is so beneficial that it may even help you live longer.
In one study, older adults who lent support to others were less likely to die during the 5-year research period than those who didn’t do good things for others.
Giving away your possessions, writing a generous check or taking time out of your day to serve others may seem challenging at first. After all, you’ve probably got plenty on your plate already.
But once you realize that those actions can help you live a longer, better life, you’ll start to see that helping other people really helps you, too. With that in mind, consider how you can make a difference for others today and every day.