You know that nice, warm feeling you get when you help someone? Science has proven that it goes beyond simply basking in the belief that we’re a good person. As far back as 1956, studies have shown that altruistic deeds (doing them or even just watching them) actually trigger the release of endorphins – the body’s natural painkillers that are comparable to morphine. This phenomenon is known as “Helper’s High” and is supported by brain imaging demonstrating that pleasure areas of the brain light up when simply imagining giving. Not only that but every time we help someone we get a spike in oxytocin (the “bonding” hormone responsible for making us feel close with our baby after birth and with our partner during sex) which also reduces stress. High levels of oxytocin have been found in very generous people. Orphanage studies show that less oxytocin is secreted by young children raised in a neglectful environment than by children raised in loving homes, suggesting that there is a window of opportunity early in life to help create a biology inclined towards empathy and compassion. More studies on young people further demonstrate causality – teens who volunteer are as a result less likely to use drugs, fail a subject in school, and get pregnant; and they tend to be happier, more socially competent, have higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression and suicide. Studies on older people (after factoring out other variables in order to demonstrate causality) show that regularly volunteering leads to overall better mental and physical health and a 44% lower rate of early death.
Not convinced? Here are a few compelling numbers from surveys on some of the millions of adult volunteers in the US:
• 89% report an improved sense of well-being.
• 73% report lower stress levels.
• 68% report better physical health.
• 77% report enhanced emotional health.
• 92% report an enriched sense of purpose in life.
• 96% report an increased happiness.
“It is one of the beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely help another without helping himself.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson