Wanna Give? This Is Your Brain on a ‘Helper’s High’

Studies document how giving affects your body

Wanna Give? This Is Your Brain on a ‘Helper’s High’

Contributor: Scott Bea, PsyD

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We all know giving helps others, whether we volunteer for organizations, offer emotional support to those around us or donate to charities. But studies show that giving is also good for the giver — boosting physical and mental health.

Studies find these health benefits associated with giving:

I can recall giving my daughters a dollar to buy a gift for us at the holiday in elementary school. When they returned home, they could not wait for the holiday to give us that gift. They insisted we open it immediately. They could be much more patient about receiving gifts. But, their brains were about to experience the delight of gift-giving.

According to a study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, people who gave social support to others had lower blood pressure than people who didn’t. Supportive interaction with others also helped people recover from coronary-related events.

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Researchers also found that people who gave their time to help others through community and organizational involvement had greater self-esteem, less depression and lower stress levels than those who didn’t.

Living longer

According to a University of California, Berkeley, study, people who were 55 and older who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44 percent less likely to die over a five-year period than those who didn’t volunteer — even accounting for many other factors including age, exercise, general health and negative habits like smoking.

A researcher found similar numbers in a University of Michigan study of elderly people who gave help to friends, relatives and neighbors, or who gave emotional support to their spouses versus those who didn’t.

Feeling happier

Biologically, giving can create a “warm glow,” activating regions in the brain associated with pleasure, connection with other people and trust.

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There is evidence that, during gift-giving behaviors, humans secrete “feel good” chemicals in our brains, such as serotonin (a mood-mediating chemical), dopamine (a feel-good chemical) and oxytocin (a compassion and bonding chemical).

When researchers from the National Institutes of Health looked at the functional MRIs of subjects who gave to various charities, they found that giving stimulates the mesolimbic pathway, which is the reward center in the brain — releasing endorphins and creating what is known as the “helper’s high.” And like other highs, this one is addictive, too.

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