New research shows that helping others may be the key to happiness.
By Lisa Farino
Few of us are immune to the frustrations and challenges of daily life—family problems, conflicts at work, illness, stress over money. When we get depressed or anxious, experts may recommend medication and/or therapy. But a newly emerging school of thought suggests that a simple, age-old principle may be part of both the prevention and the cure: Help others to help yourself.
There’s no shortage of research showing that people who give time, money, or support to others are more likely to be happy and satisfied with their lives—and less likely to be depressed. Could helping others be the key to weathering the inevitable storms of life?
Carolyn Schwartz, a research professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, didn’t start out looking at the value of helping others. Instead, she wanted to see if receiving monthly peer-support phone calls from fellow multiple sclerosis sufferers would benefit others with the disease. But over time, a surprising trend emerged. While those receiving support appeared to gain some mild benefit, the real beneficiaries were those lending a supportive ear. In fact, those who offered support experienced dramatic improvements in their quality of life—several times more so than those they were helping.
The benefits of giving aren’t limited to those who are ill. When Schwartz later looked at more than 2,000 mostly healthy Presbyterian church-goers across the nation, she found that those who helped others were significantly happier and less depressed than those who didn’t.
This phenomenon is nothing new. Paul Wink and Michele Dillon found a similar pattern when they looked at data collected every decade on a group of San Francisco Bay Area residents beginning in the 1930s. Those who volunteered and engaged in other forms of giving when they were adolescents were much less likely to become depressed, even as they got older.
New research suggests there may be a biochemical explanation for the positive emotions associated with doing good. In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, participants’ brains were monitored by MRI scans while they made decisions about donating part of their research payment to charitable organizations. When participants chose to donate money, the brain’s mesolimbic system was activated, the same part of the brain that’s activated in response to monetary rewards, sex, and other positive stimuli. Choosing to donate also activated the brain’s subgenual area, the part of the brain that produces feel-good chemicals, like oxytocin, that promote social bonding.
Why doing good works
These results may seem surprising, especially since our culture tends to associate happiness with getting something. Why should we humans be programmed to respond so positively to giving?
“As Darwin noted, group selection played a strong rule in human evolution. If something like helping benefits the group, it will be associated with pleasure and happiness,” explains Stephen Post, Ph.D., a research professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University who co-authored the book Why Good Things Happen to Good Peoplewith Jill Neimark.
While evolution may have primed us to feel good from giving, it may not be the only reason helping others makes us feel better. Since depression, anxiety, and stress involve a high degree of focus on the self, focusing on the needs of others literally helps shift our thinking.
“When you’re experiencing compassion, benevolence, and kindness, they push aside the negative emotions,” says Post. “One of the best ways to overcome stress is to do something to help someone else.”
Even better, feeling good and doing good can combine to create a positive feedback loop, where doing good helps us to feel good and feeling good also makes us more likely to do good.
“Numerous studies have found that happy people are more helpful,” says Dr. David Myers, a social psychologist at Hope College and author of The Pursuit of Happiness. “Those who’ve just found money in a phone booth are more likely to help a passerby with dropped papers. Those who feel successful are more likely to volunteer as a tutor.”
When giving isn’t good
While doing good is generally good for the doer, Post stresses that there are two important caveats. First, the caregiver can’t be overwhelmed. There’s ample research showing negative mental and physical consequences for givers who are overburdened and stressed by their duties—or who do so much they don’t have time to have fun and take care of themselves.
In addition, while helping others can be a great antidote to the mild depression, stress, and anxiety that is a normal part of the ups and downs daily life, Post emphasizes that it’s not a cure for severe depression. “If you are clinically depressed, you need professional help,” Post says.
But for people who aren’t severely depressed and who give within their limits, helping others can bring joy and happiness—and better health and longevity too.
Some people wonder if these positive benefits make helping others an ultimately selfish act. “If the warm glow and ‘helper’s high’ that people experience when they help others is selfish, then we need more of this kind of selfishness,” says Post.
How to help others—and yourself
Incorporating kindness into your daily life isn’t difficult. Here are five easy things you can do to help others—and yourself:
- Volunteer. Research shows that people who volunteer just two hours per week (about 100 hours per year) have better physical health and are less depressed. To find volunteer opportunities in your area, visit Volunteer Match or contact your local church or school.
- Informally offer help to family, friends, and neighbors. Lend a needed tool, bring dinner to someone who’s sick, feed pets for neighbors on vacation, or offer a ride to someone who lacks a car.
- Donate. It doesn’t have to be a lot of money. Toss change into coffee cans at cash registers or support local organizations by buying a raffle ticket. Look for opportunities to give within your means. You’ll help make the world a better place and make yourself feel better too.
- Listen. Sometimes all others need is someone to lend a sympathetic ear to make them feel heard, cared for and loved.
- Make other people (and yourself) smile. The easiest way to make other people happy is to act happy yourself, even if it’s not how you feel. “Sometimes we can act ourselves into a way of thinking,” says Myers. “So like the old song says, ‘Put on a happy face.’ Talk as if you have self-esteem and are outgoing and optimistic. Going through the motions can awaken the emotions.”