4 reasons why helping others is good for you
Can humans really be selfless? There is still a lot of controversy over why we help others. Out of generosity? Or because we hope to get something in exchange? What has become pretty clear, however: Not only getting support but also giving support to others is good for you. Here are some benefits of being a samaritan.
1. Helping others is good for your health
It has long been clear that receiving social support has several health benefits. It lessens, for example, the negative consequences of life stress and promotes the recovery from surgery or mental illnesses.
However, what is even more interesting: Not only getting but also giving support is good for your health. Helping reduces stress. In an experiment, people who assisted others were less anxious. For those who received support, however, the stress levels didn’t change. Why can giving help reduce stress better than getting it? A possible explanation might have to do with control. If you give support, you not only feel the joys of being helpful but you are also in control of the situation. However, receiving help may cause stress. It might be the wrong kind of help or make you feel dependent.
Additionally, helping others has an indirect, long-term health benefit. Through your support you strengthen social bonds and – incidentally – your well-being. Research shows that your health is strongly influenced by your relationships. Adolescents and elder people benefit from a large social network. In middle adulthood, the quality of the relationship matters more than quantity. No matter if you are aiming for quality or quantity: In order to maintain social bounds, mutual help and support plays a big role.
2. Your brain rewards good deeds
But why is helping others pleasant, at all? For a long time, the leading hypothesis was that people are motivated to support others only because they expect to get something back. This could be some service in return. But also social acceptance or prestige.
It is likely that reciprocity often is an important factor when we help someone. However, this theory cannot account for everything. Sometimes people act altruistic towards strangers even if there is no hint at a possible gain. Some even risk their lives.
Humans seem to have an instinct for generosity. In an experiment, people were more cooperative when they had to decide very quickly. Selfishness rose only when they had more time to think. There is also mounting evidence, that the concept of fairness is enrooted in your brain. Its reward center reacts positively to fairness – even if that means that you’re worse off. In an experiment people could decide between getting money or giving money to someone else. They had never met and would never meet that person. There was no social pressure or hope for a service in return. However, facing the decision between having 1 Dollar or letting the other person get 2, half of the people decided to be selfless. At the same time, reward-related brain areas were activated.
Activation in the same areas have been observed when people give money to charity or spend it on somebody else. This means that your brain might reward generosity in a similar way as it would reward you when eating a cookie or having sex.
3. Supporting others gives your life meaning
Apart from health benefits and goodies from your reward circuits, helping others can also provide you with something very profound: meaning. Research confirms what many have already experienced themselves: Helping others is fulfilling. There is evidence that helping others doesn’t boost your overall happiness in life. But it definitely fuels the more subtle feeling that your life has a meaning, a purpose.
There are different possible explanations for this. You might find meaning in being selfless because it improves your relationships – a key factor for a meaningful life. Another explanation is that helping others fulfills very basic psychological needs. These are autonomy, competence and relatedness. Put in the context of helping, this means: You feel that it was your free choice to support someone - autonomy. You experience the feeling of being capable to help and, thus, make a difference – competence. Last but not least, helping makes you feel close to others – connectedness. This could be the reason why people enjoy the feeling of being needed.
4. Selfless is sexy
If you’re a nice guy, we have even more good news for you. Women find altruism attractive. A study has shown that for a long-term partner they prefer selfless men over attractive ones. Guys who are attractive and altruistic at the same time are pretty irresistible. So giving the money to charity might boost your sex appeal more than getting a Porsche – at least, if you’re looking for something serious.
Health, meaning and sex appeal – you want it all? Then go out and spread some helpfulness.