When you do something beneficial for someone else—such as cheering up a lonely relative or helping an ailing neighbor—you are likely to generate significant rewards for yourself. That’s because altruistic behavior can deliver at least as much mental and physical benefit to the giver as to the receiver, according to researchers. Multiple studies suggest that people who help others tend to have better health, fewer limitations, lower blood pressure, a longer lifespan, fewer symptoms of depression, better cognitive functioning, and a lower risk for dementia.
In fact, a study published May 2016 in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine suggests that the giver may benefit more than the receiver on a neurobiological level. Researchers scanned the brains of volunteers who received help in solving a complicated math problem, and other volunteers who provided the help. They found that in participants who provided the support, but not in those who received it, brain regions involved in reward and caregiving became more activated, while regions involved in potentially unhealthy stress responses became less activated.
“This study suggests that there’s a brain reward that promotes overall health—a reduction in stress—that comes from providing support to others,” says Gregory Fricchione, MD, who directs the Division of Psychiatry and Medicine at MGH. “Earlier research suggests that altruism also activates the brain’s reward pathways, releasing brain chemicals such as dopamine, which can elevate mood, and endorphins, which help block pain signals and increase the sense of wellbeing.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO
To experience the benefits of altruistic behavior, try the following exercise, which has been shown to increase a sense of happiness and wellbeing in the giver:
In a famous 2003 study, researchers Sonja Lyubomirski and Kennon M. Sheldon compared a group of volunteers who performed normal activities with a similar group who were asked to perform five random acts of kindness each week for six weeks. The acts were described as behaviors that benefited others or made others happy, typically at some personal cost (e.g., dropping coins into a stranger’s parking meter, or donating blood). Self-reported happiness ratings taken before and after the study revealed that the participants who had performed acts of kindness reported greater happiness at the end of the study period, while the control group reported feeling less happy.
Researchers have also found genetic evidence that other-oriented individuals are more likely than self-oriented individuals to be resistant to the inflammation and impaired antibody production that are linked to poor health, according to a 2013 report published in the journal PNAS.
“The benefits associated with altruistic behaviors make perfect sense from an evolution-ary perspective,” says Dr. Fricchione, who also is the director of MGH’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. “Because human beings are reliant on a system of social support, the exchange between the giver and receiver likely evolved to provide advantages to both. The receiver gets needed support, and the giver enjoys a health dividend.”
You can experience the benefits of altruism by taking advantage of opportunities to help others through your own actions in everyday life and through engagement with others, such as by contributing to charities, or helping out in volunteer efforts. Examples of approaches that help expand the habit of altruism include:
▶ Try to do at least one altruistic deed each day. For example, you might help a stranger change a flat tire or hold the door open for someone. Good deeds encourage positive social relationships and a habit of awareness of others’ needs.
▶ Notice the altruistic acts of others, and thank them. Expressing gratitude for others’ supportive actions strengthens social bonds and promotes the cycle of helping others that increases cooperation.
▶ Pay attention to how giving to others makes you feel. Taking note of the positive feelings of meaningfulness, improved morale, and personal reward that go with altruistic actions will help rein-force the habit of giving.
▶ Offer emotional support. Offer a kind word to a stressed-out colleague, or a warm hug to a discouraged friend. Be compassionate.
▶ Join organizations that reflect a spirit of altruism. Charities, religious organizations, community service organizations, and other groups can help you find many worthwhile ways to give to others.
▶ Pitch in during crises. In emergencies or times of turbulence, find ways to help out. Joining with others and pulling your weight strengthens the sense of community, and promotes self-esteem and feelings of wellbeing.
“The basis of altruism is empathy,” explains Dr. Fricchione. “Researchers have found specialized neurons in the human brain that are thought to recognize and mirror what others are experiencing. People feel discomfort when they see others suffer, and this discomfort appears to be mitigated by providing support.
“Remember, however, that the benefits of giving come as the result of voluntary actions that do not exhaust the giver. Stretching yourself to the limit for others can become distressing. If you lack resiliency or are under stress yourself, activities like caregiving can take a toll on your health. So sometimes altruistic individuals need a respite and support from others.”