‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others’
Every January one of the biggest charity organisations in Poland unites thousands of volunteers to help gather money to buy hospital equipment. This charity event lasts only one day but it joins together an extremely big amount of people driven by one aim: to help people in need. Organizers themselves admit that it is a curious social phenomenon: there has never been a case of stealing money by any of the volunteers; moreover, year after year there are more and more people willing to sacrifice their time for a greater cause.
What makes us this way? Why are we so driven to make somebody else’s life better? Are we purely altruistic or is there any hidden profit lurking behind every good deed?
Well, the answer as usual is ambiguous. There are many profits one can gain from helping others, but those beneficial properties of charity are cloistered in our brain, influencing us without our immediate knowledge.
Many of us asked about reasons for helping people answer that it just feels right or that it feels good. I would like to lobotomise this feeling and get to psychological core of it.
There is no denying that charity brings emotional benefits to people involved in it. People feel useful and that satisfies their feeling of self-fulfillment. Researchers from the University of Australia took further the analysis of this particular feeling and its impact upon our self-development. They all agree that self-fulfillment significantly increases the ability to seek creative solutions to problems, making a person more self-assured and more competent in stress management.
There have been many studies concerning impact of charity and volunteering on people. It has been discovered that apart from such obvious profits like reinforced pro-social behavior, it also allows people to take different perspective to their own lives. Experiencing problems of others helps us appreciate our own life with all its ups and downs. Therapeutic properties of helping yourself by helping others were used in group therapy sessions (starting from 1960s) by social psychologist Frank Riessman who activated addicts, alcoholics and law abusers to help people in need or another member of a group to overcome obstacles that life brought them. This approach called ‘helper theory’ was successfully implemented by many support groups, and it is still used as one of the most successful therapy tools.
As much as I liked all those theories, it still did not fully answer why people experience so many benefits from helping others. I had to dig deeper into the topic, so I decided that it was time to reach for medical explanation.
After hours of googling I stumbled upon a book written by a medical doctor Stephen G. Post entitled Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by Simple Act of Giving. Part of the book treated about underlying neurological causes for charitable acts.
According to Doctor Post, good deeds like helping others, giving money for a good cause or volunteering activate mesolimbic pathways in our brains. This particular part of brain is responsible for feeling joy and pleasure. Upon having an appropriate stimulus like eating, sex or precisely an act of charity, it releases dopamine which is more widely known as a happy hormone. That is the reason why some people who have problems with balancing emotions can even get addicted to giving, as Doctor Post explains.
Moreover, thanks to charity not only are we more content, but also we can enjoy longer and healthier life. A body of a charitable person produces large amount of oxytocine which is considered a compassion hormone and which lowers our susceptibility to long-term stress exposure. Less amount of stress makes miracles to our immune system, which inevitable leads to healthier life with higher longevity.
Both scientists and psychologists unanimously agree that charity as much as it helps other people also has an incredibly positive impact on our own lives. It is emotionally rewarding, it connects us with others and allows us to make use of any talent that we are willing to offer.
Consequently, this whole anatomical approach to charity can be summarized as follows: be good to yourself by being good to those in need.