One day, you’re walking home from work and see an elderly lady struggling to carry her groceries, so you offer to help her. She’s very grateful and can’t stop thanking you. You also spend time volunteering at a homeless shelter and can see the impact it has. No question that helping others has a positive outcome for them, but did you know that it’s beneficial for you too? Why is this the case? What gains do you receive?
Take a moment to think about the last time that you did something good for someone else. Afterward, did you have a “warm glow” feeling?
The idea of helping others having a positive impact on one’s life isn’t new. For hundreds of years, scholars have stressed the importance of this and shared their wisdom:
• For it is in giving that we receive. – Saint Francis of Assisi
• The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity. – Leo Tolstoy
• We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give. – Winston Churchill
• Happiness and fulfillment are achieved by loving rather than in being loved. – Aristotle
• The purpose of life is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
• The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others. – Albert Schweitzer
Throughout history, research has found many examples of how doing big or small acts of kindness provides benefits to the giver as well as the receiver. Psychologists have distinguished between two types of well-being: hedonic (a sense of happiness) and eudaimonic (a sense of meaning and purpose). Although happiness and meaning overlap significantly, it’s suspected that helping others is especially vital to developing a sense of meaning.
So, we engage in generous behaviors because it helps us meet our most basic psychological needs, such as autonomy (feeling that you’ve freely chosen your actions), competence (feeling that you’re good and capable), and relatedness (feeling close to others). A study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology asked over 400 participants to report how frequently they engage in different altruistic behaviors (ex. volunteering) and how meaningful their life feels. More altruistic individuals had a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.
In a different study, the researchers looked at whether expressing gratitude, which is considered a prosocial emotion (behaving in a kind and helpful way), could cause participants to have a greater sense of meaning. Participants were randomly assigned to write letters of gratitude to someone who had impacted their lives or about non-related topics. The results showed that those who wrote gratitude letters later indicated that their lives were more meaningful than the other participants. It appears that expressing a prosocial emotion increases an individual’s sense of purpose.
The researchers also asked participants about their prosocial behavior, meaning in life, and quality of relationships. There was a noted link between prosocial behavior and meaning in life. Researchers discovered that relationship quality partially accounted for that link.
According to a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), when you help others, you improve your friendships, building stronger bonds, which increase the quality of your life. One of the benefits of building bonds with others is the support we can receive in return. In our daily lives, there are plenty of opportunities for regulating our own emotions. However, when they become overwhelming, we often turn to others for support.
The two most common ways to help others regulate emotions are through acceptance (showing empathy by validating their feelings) and reappraisal (assisting others in thinking about their situation in a different way). Per a Columbia University study, when we help others navigate their stressful situations, we improve our emotion regulation skills, furthering our emotional well-being. The study took place over three weeks.
Participants were provided with an anonymous online environment to share their personal stories of stressful life events or provide emotional support to other participants by replying to their entries with short, empathetic messages. Researchers found that participants helped each other by identifying potential distorted thinking, suggesting alternate coping strategies, or providing words of acceptance. The responses were rated for their degree of helpfulness. Participants were also allowed to express their gratitude for the messages that they received from others.
The findings demonstrated that helping others to regulate their emotions resulted in better emotional and cognitive outcomes for those who were giving the help. Since heightened levels of self-focused attention are typical in depression, the more we help others, the more depression will be reduced. Helping others gives you a different perspective on your own situation and can distract you from your problems.
Helping others typically leaves you with a more positive attitude. When you perform acts of kindness, it’ll boost your mood, ultimately making you more optimistic. A team of sociologists tracked 2000 people over five years. They discovered that Americans who described themselves as “very happy” volunteered at least 5.8 hours per month. A survey by the United Health Group showed that 96% of people who volunteered over the previous 12 months stated that volunteering enriches their sense of purpose.
Research has shown that consistent volunteering activity can improve your health in ways that can lengthen your lifespan. This might be due to volunteering alleviating loneliness and enhancing our social lives—factors that can significantly affect our long-term health. People who volunteer have been found to have higher self-esteem and overall well-being. This is because when we feel socially connected, we have more self-esteem. This is impacted by the consistency of your volunteering as well. Meaning the more regularly you volunteer, the more confidence you’ll have.
New evidence supports all these studies by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The imaging shows there’s a link between generosity and happiness in the brain. In fact, just the intent and commitment to generosity can stimulate positive neural changes. The technology has also shown that giving activates the same parts of the brain stimulated by food and sex—the cause of the neurological changes…endorphins.
Yes, the brain chemical that produces euphoria when you’re exercising, sometimes referred to as a Runner’s High, gets produced when you help others. In a way, it could be called a Helper’s High. The theory behind this is that giving causes the mesolimbic system, the portion of the brain responsible for feelings of reward, to be triggered. The rush of endorphins causes your brain to want to do more acts of kindness, so it continues to have the good feelings.
Studies show that these feelings even occur when people donate to charity. When we spend money on others, it increases our happiness compared to spending it on ourselves. However, the research is clear that you should focus on developing high-quality relationships to reap the most benefits.
Some experts think that there are physical benefits to helping others, including an improved ability to manage stress, leading to a better immune system. Some newer research on telomeres (the end-caps of our genes) shows that long-term stress not only shortens these end-caps but can lead to earlier death. According to a survey from the American Psychological Association, stress is a common experience, with many people feeling strained beyond their coping abilities.
It’s easy to feel overworked, frustrated, and burned out thanks to work, money issues, family stress, and other obligations. Numerous studies show that active volunteers have comparatively lower levels of cortisol levels (stress hormones). The United Health Group study found that 78% of people who volunteered over the previous 12 months felt that their volunteer activities lowered their stress. These people appeared to be calmer and more peaceful than people who didn’t participate in volunteer work.
A 2015 report published in the Clinical Psychological Science journal also uncovered that helping others can relieve stress. There were 77 adults between the ages of 18 and 44 included in the study. They received an automated call every night reminding them to complete a daily questionnaire, which asked them about stressful events in their day. The study members were also asked to keep track of their helpful behaviors and the emotions associated with these behaviors. The outcome was those who performed more daily acts of kindness were less likely to feel stressed.
When participants couldn’t complete any acts of kindness, they reported more stress and negativity. The study is a clear indication that we can help ourselves manage stress and feel better by doing good deeds for other people. Some other physical benefits of helping others are lower blood pressure and less chronic pain. One body of research confirms that older individuals who volunteered for at least 200 hours a year decreased their hypertension risk by 40%. A different study looked at individuals who suffered from chronic pain and worked as peer volunteers. The result was a reduction in their symptoms.
If you’re new to the idea of helping others, you might worry that it’ll make your schedule busier. Just remember, you don’t need to begin with grand gestures. Small, everyday behaviors can have a positive impact on others and your own sense of well-being. One simple way to start is to pay attention to the people around you and what you can do to make their lives a little easier. Being friendly and thoughtful can make a huge difference, even if it’s just holding the door for a stranger, paying for the car behind you at the drive-thru window, or baking treats for your coworkers. It shows others that you care.
The key isn’t the size, or amount, of help but the sincerity of the gesture. Empty gestures make people feel like they’re a burden, and they feel guilty. On a positive note, when one person performs a good deed, it causes a chain reaction. One study found that people are more likely to perform acts of generosity after observing someone else do the same.
One essential thing to keep in mind is that the best things in life are free, such as smiles, hugs, and other gestures, especially those that show gratitude. This makes others feel appreciated and can help improve your relationships while making your life more meaningful.
So, take the time and make an effort to thank every person who plays a part in your life, no matter how big or small. This lets the other person know that you notice them and their efforts. It can be a quick note telling them how much you appreciate them, how proud of them you are, or to say thank you for something they did. Another way is to show your appreciation publicly. Praising another in front of family or coworkers can have an impact that lasts far longer than the moment itself.
Another consideration is that giving your time means more to the receiver and more satisfaction for the giver than the gift of money. Look at it this way, we don’t have the same amount of money, but we all have the same amount of time on our hands. The nice thing about volunteering is you can participate as much as your schedule allows.
Another thing is that helping others can be especially useful when you can see the specific impact your actions have, which is easier to see when you’re actively involved in giving your time. Community service is one of the best ways because it allows you to connect with people in your community and make it a better place. The possibilities of where to volunteer are endless.
To stick with volunteering, find something you’re passionate about and ways to integrate your interests and skills with others’ needs. Local non-profits, such as local shelters, animal rescues, or soup kitchens, are always in need of help, whether you’re giving your time, skills, or money. These places rely on the support and kindness of the communities they serve. Reach out to local shelters, churches/religious organizations, youth centers, group homes, prisons, and businesses to find out what they need. Then, declutter your closet or basement and donate any clothes, toys, and books. Another idea is to donate blood.
If your schedule doesn’t allow you to give your time, you can donate money to charities through fundraising efforts, giving in the memory of a loved one, or even giving your spare change to a charity at the grocery store. Few things are as easy or provide as much instant gratification as donating money to people in need.
The vital thing is to give to organizations with transparent aims and results because it leads to more happiness than giving to a cause where you don’t know where your money is going. By being proactive, not reactive, you won’t experience the feeling of humiliation that we’ve all felt from being cajoled into giving. A great idea is to ask people to support a particular charity instead of giving you a birthday or Christmas gift.
When we put other people’s needs before our own, we reduce stress and improve our mood, self-esteem, and happiness. Not only does helping others fulfill basic human needs, but it helps to strengthen our relationships and connect us with others. So, make an effort to offer your time, a warm smile, and an empathic touch. Not only will the receiver feel good, but you will too!