Recently, I found myself in an Oklahoma local coffee drive-thru. As I pulled up to the window, the employee informed me the person in front of me had paid for my drink. Faster than a caffeine buzz, a warm-fuzzy feeling raced through my veins. Enjoying the gratitude, I handed the employee my credit card, saying, “Let’s pay it forward.” This happy, feel-good moment of receiving, and then imagining how the next person was going to feel, resulted in an all-day smile and an extra pep in my step.
How about you? Have you experienced a warm, fuzzy, happy feeling when you volunteered, helped another, or donated to a great cause? Did it change your whole day? Leave you feeling really good?
Did you know we are wired to do kind things? It is actually in our DNA to be kind and help one another—it’s called human nature. Most often, we see this is in times of disaster, like after a hurricane, earthquake, or now, with COVID-19.
Studies have collectively found altruistic behavior, whether giving money, giving time, or random acts of kindness, activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure. Giving back and serving others releases endorphins and the hormone oxytocin, which produces positive emotions known as the “helper’s high.” This term was first noted by author Allan Luks in his book, coauthored with Peggy Payne, The Healing Power of Doing Good.
Helping another or volunteering helps the one giving, too. A commissioned study by the charity Guide Dogs found that 95% of the 2,000 subjects who gave their time to a good cause felt happier. A 1997 study focused on teenagers with behavioral difficulties; instead of punishing them for negative behavior, they were assigned to help younger children with homework. Interestingly, the teenagers made significant improvements in their studies and also showed positive changes in their attitude towards themselves, others, education, and their outlook on the future. Helping others regulates our own emotions, decreases symptoms of depression, and ultimately improves our emotional well-being.
Scientific journals have found that giving money, giving to charities, and other forms of generosity activate regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust, as well as boosting health.
In his book Why Good Things Happen to Good People, Stephen Post, a professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University, reports that giving to others has been shown to increase health benefits in people with chronic illness. An American Psychological Association Journal of Occupational Health Psychology study found that volunteering may lead to living longer. Other studies have found that those volunteering for longer periods are less likely to develop hypertension and have better psychological well-being.
Studies concur, simply being kind and practicing compassion releases the hormone serotonin, which is associated with emotional warmth, and feel-good emotions which can lower blood pressure, anxiety, and inflammation. Giving back creates nothing but positive benefits, including physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
A 2016 neuroimaging study conducted a series of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore how specific brain areas were affected by giving versus receiving social support. The researchers found that giving ultimately had greater brain benefits than receiving. The scans showed specific activation when a participant was giving support, more so than receiving support.
How can you get in on the health-benefiting, feel-good activities while helping another? The sky’s the limit. The best advice is this: only do what you are capable of. Do not overextend yourself or create unrealistic exceptions. Giving back should not cause you stress. It should bring feel-good emotions for you and the receiver of your altruism.
Make a list of what you are truly passionate about, then research organizations that align. If donating money to a local charity brings you happiness, then go for it. If you have more time on your hands, your time is worth its weight in gold.
If you love animals, join a local animal shelter. Caring for animals has shown wonderful positive impacts for both animals and people. Deliver meals for those who need assistance, or help children with their studies. Donate your books and magazines to your local library or a medical office. Or, how about giving back by donating blood?
One of my ways of giving back is anonymously purchasing a police officer or firefighter’s coffee. I then wait to see the look of confusion, followed by a big smile of gratitude. Really makes my day.
Another way you can spread some love is by contacting your local homeless shelter—they are always in need of help. Or, simply make another smile by giving a genuine compliment, pay for someone’s meal or groceries, or pay it forward by purchasing someone’s coffee in the morning.
How about just sitting and listening to a stranger’s story? Pick up the phone and reach out to a friend, ask how they are really doing. Then, sit back, relax, and enjoy the feel-good, all-over, fuzzy-warm benefits. It just might give you an extra pep in your step.