Why Helping Others Makes Us Happier
Does helping others make more of a difference than we realize? Research shows that volunteer work and charitable giving activate pleasure centers in our brain and actually make us feel better.
If you ask most people why they give money to charity or volunteer their time, the answer is probably because they want to make a difference in their community or in the world. But research is finding that our brains' pleasure circuits become activated when we give—meaning that besides doing good, donating our money or time actually makes us feel good.
Researchers have found that this feeling is similar to “runner’s high,” a term coined for that feel-good sensation that rushes through your body after a run. They use the term “helper’s high” to describe what happens to your body and brain when you are kind to another person or give to them in some way.
While the Buddha taught that people should give to others without expectation of getting anything in return, research seems to show that giving and receiving are closely linked in our brains.
One Emory University study found that helping others actually stimulates the same parts of the brain that get activated when you receive a reward. Neuroscientists tracked brain activity while people were helping others, and found it triggered activity in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate—two parts of the brain known to be stimulated when you receive a gift.
A University of Zurich study was one of the first to track the effects of charitable giving on the brain. Scientists gave participants money and asked them to divide it between themselves and another person who they didn't know. They always had the option to give more to the other person or keep more for themselves. They found that some people were almost never willing to share the money, while others easily gave more to the other person. They found a difference in the brains of these two groups. People who behaved more altruistically had a higher proportion of gray matter in their brains, which is responsible for memory, language, and consciousness.
Being more altruistic also makes people happier, according to a 2010 Harvard Business School survey of more than 136 countries. In their research, they found that people who gave generously to charitable organizations were the happiest overall.
In the United States, about 25 percent of people (or almost 63 million people) volunteered in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. People also gave more than $335 billion in 2013 to charitable organizations.
© 2014 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies