Giving to Others Is Physically Good for You — Science Proves It!

Survival of the kindest

At the University of California, Berkeley, researchers are challenging long-held beliefs that human beings are hard-wired to be selfish. There is a growing body of evidence that shows we are evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive. “Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others,” says Dacher Keltner, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate.” Does this oppose Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” competition model where every man has to look after himself? Not so, it seems. In “The Descent of Man,” Darwin talks about benevolence 99 times, and concludes that love, sympathy and cooperation also exist in the natural world, like the way a pelican might provide fish for a blind pelican in their flock. “As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct,” says Keltner.

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Our brains our hard-wired to serve

“You gotta see this!” Dr. Jorge Moll said in an email. Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, had been scanning the brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves. As Grafman read the e-mail, Moll came bursting in. The scientists stared at each other. Grafman was thinking, “Whoa — wait a minute!”

Grafman led one of two studies in the mid-2000s that examined where in the brain the impulse to give originated, thereby shedding light on why it feels so good to help others…

The results demonstrated that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Donating affects two brain “reward” systems working together: the midbrain ventral tegmental area (VTA)-striatum mesolimbic network, which also is stimulated by food, sex, drugs and money; as well as the subgenual area, which is stimulated when humans see babies and romantic partners…

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Just as a heroic fireman races into a building on fire, there are times when we volunteer without any expectations. Our brains sometimes just follow the Nike adage: when help is required, we “Just do it.” And when we do it, it feels good.   And apparently, it also makes us live a little longer.

Why should volunteering have such positive effects? One such explanation is that volunteering is a social activity that enhances one’s social resources, which in turn has health implications. But above and beyond the usual hedonistic social activities, such as partying with friends, volunteering together contributes to a sense of shared purpose that engenders a certain camaraderie.

Fortunately, a large portion of us do volunteer. In a national survey of 4,582 American adults, four out of ten reported volunteering an average of two hours per week. Even more striking is that 68 percent of volunteers agreed that volunteering “has made me feel physically healthier.” In fact, the survey indicated that volunteers have less trouble sleeping, have lower stress levels and have better personal relationships. Finally, an incredible 96 percent said volunteering “makes people happier.” People are starting to subscribe to the “helping others antidote.” “If you could create a pill with the same results as indicated by the survey of American volunteers,” says the writer Stephen Post, “it would be a best seller overnight.”

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It turns out that we don’t even need to take a pill. Take a brief second and imagine yourself volunteering to help someone. Take a bit of time.

Did you feel anything? Don’t feel bad if you didn’t, because your brain’s mesolimbic system actually just did. Even just thinking or imagining helping someone releases chemicals that make your brain’s mesolimbic system light up. The mesolimbic system is widely believed to be the source of feelings related to reward and desire and acts as the pathway to the soothing hormone dopamine or the anti-depression hormone serotonin. When we give, imagine giving, or watch someone give, our mesolimbic system releases chemicals that dominate over our other stress hormones. In one related study, students who watched a film of Mother Teresa working with the poor displayed significant increases in protective antibodies associated with improved immunity.

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Interestingly, our brain is structured to distinguish between senses of happiness derived from the Mother Teresa-like pursuit of noble principles and hedonistic happiness that is based on a life of pleasure. Researchers Steven Cole and Barbara Fredrickson examined these two types of happiness by looking at the overall health and depression of a collection of adults. They ran blood samples and ran a series of tests to look for patterns associated with something called the “conserved transcriptional response to adversity” or CTRA. A high level of CTRA produces similar symptoms as a person subjected to chronic stress, threat, or trauma, which are associated with cardiovascular disease. What Cole and Frederickson discovered was that those people who reported high levels of happiness from living a purposeful life had a low CTRA and a corresponding better immune response profile. In contrast, those with high levels of hedonic happiness had a high CTRA profile. Therefore, happiness derived from leading a life with purpose produced healthier benefits. Even on a cellular level, it is better for you to do good for others than for yourself.


{Image credit: Jon Ottosson, Unsplash}

About the Author

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Jenny Santi was born and raised in Manila in the Philippines, and now splits her time between Singapore and New York. She holds an MBA from INSEAD and Wharton Business School and attended New York University’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising. Santi is a philanthropy advisor to some of the world’s most generous philanthropists, and for five years, was the head of philanthropy services (Southeast Asia) for the world’s largest wealth manager. She has appeared on BBC World News, Swiss TV SRF, Channel News Asia and News5 TV in the Philippines. Check out a video clip here.

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