HAPPINESS AND THE SCIENCE OF HELPING OTHERS

from  Action for Happiness* 


Giving  connects us to others, creating stronger communities and helping to build a happier society for everyone.  So if you want to feel good, do good! 

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Doing things for others - whether small, unplanned acts or regular volunteering - is a powerful way to boost our own happiness as well of those around us. The people we help may be strangers, family, friends, colleagues or neighbours. They can be old or young, nearby or far away.

Giving isn't just about money, so you don't need to be rich. Giving to others can be as simple as a single kind word, smile or a thoughtful gesture. It can include giving time, care, skills, thought or attention. Sometimes these mean as much, if not more, than financial gifts.

Scientific studies show that helping others boosts happiness. It increases life satisfaction, provides a sense of meaning, increases feelings of competence, improves our mood and reduces stress. It can help to take our minds off our own troubles too. 

Kindness towards others is the glue which connects individual happiness with wider community and societal wellbeing. Giving to others helps us connect with people and meets one of our basic human needs - relatedness. Kindness and caring also seem to be contagious. When we see someone do something kind or thoughtful, or we are on the receiving end of kindness, it inspires us to be kinder ourselves.  In this way, kindness spreads from one person to the next, influencing the behaviour of people who never saw the original act. Kindness really is the key to creating a happier, more trusting local community. 

Science shows there are strong associations between happiness and helping others. Firstly, happiness helps helping. Happy people are more likely to be interested in or be inclined towards helping others. They are more likely to have recently performed acts of kindness or spent a greater percentage of their time or money helping others. 

There appears to be a relationship between happiness and helping others at every age:

  • Pre-school children who displayed empathy were more likely to have happy moods
  • High school students who said they experienced intense positive feelings were more likely to be involved in community service activities such as volunteering
  • Working adults who were happier at work were more likely to help others 
  • Volunteering has also been related to many benefits for senior citizens, including greater happiness and life satisfaction. 

Volunteering also appeared to predict maintenance of cognitive functioning in a study of 2,500 people in their 70's who were followed in a study lasting 8 years. Others studies have shown that amongst teenagers, volunteering has been associated with improved self-esteem, reduction in anti-social or problem behaviours and school truancy, improved attitudes to school and increased educational achievement. 

Giving literally feels good. In a study of over 1,700 women volunteers, scientists described the experience of a 'helpers' high'. This was the euphoric feeling, followed by a longer period of calm, experienced by many of the volunteers after helping. These sensations result from the release of endorphins, and are followed by a longer-lasting period of improved emotional well-being and sense of self-worth, feelings that in turn reduce stress and improve the health of the helper. 

It used to be thought that human beings only did things when they got something in return. How then could we explain people who did kind acts or donated money anonymously? Studies of the brain now show that when we give money to good causes, the same parts of the brain light up as if we were receiving money ourselves (or responding to other pleasurable stimuli such as: food, money or sex)! 

Giving to others activates the reward centres of our brains which make us feel good and so encourage us to do more of the same. Giving money to a good cause literally feels as good as receiving it, especially if the donations are voluntary. 

And finally, giving help has a stronger association with mental health than receiving it. Studies have shown that volunteers have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety and they feel more hopeful. It is also related to feeling good about oneself. It can serve to distract people from dwelling on their own problems and be grateful for what they have. 

Action for Happiness is a movement of people committed to building a happier and more caring society.  Read the full article with references to scientific studies here.