How Helping People Affects Your Brain

Research shows why it’s physically better for us to give than receive.

Helping others impacts brain activity in ways that promote better physical health. Getty Images

Thanksgiving is an important time of year for Amy de la Fuente.

Her grandmother passed away on the holiday so it’s a tradition for the 26-year-old’s entire family to come together in Santa Rosa, California, and honor her memory.

Yet, de la Fuente made a conscious decision to skip Thanksgiving this year. Instead, she spent the holiday helping survivors of California’s devastating Camp Fire.

As a volunteer for the American Red Cross, de la Fuente registered shelter residents at the Butte County Fairgrounds and loaded supplies… for two exhausting weeks.

And when an elderly woman whose oxygen tank was malfunctioning grabbed de la Fuente and begged her, “Please, don’t leave me,” she knew just what to say.

“I put my hand on top of hers and told her, ‘I’m not going anywhere,’” de la Fuente remembered.

“What I do might not change the world,” de la Fuente said, “but at least one person’s world will be changed.”

However, it’s volunteers like de la Fuente who are changed the most in these moments.

While being the recipient of a gift — be it a holiday bonus, new computer, or glitter macaroni necklace your kindergartner made just for you — feels awesome, research shows it truly is better to give than receive.

How your brain lights up when you help

During a recent study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh gave 45 volunteers an option: They could complete a task that benefited themselves, a charity, or a particular friend in need.

Afterwards, a brain scan showed a noticeable — and fascinating — difference based on their choice.

Not only did the participants who chose to help a particular person display increased activity in two “reward centers” of their brain, but they had decreased activity in three other regions that help inform the body’s physical response to stress through blood pressure and inflammation.

A second study from the University of Pittsburgh, this time utilizing nearly 400 volunteers who were asked to self-report their “giving” habits, showed similar results.

“Humans are born especially vulnerable and dependent on others,” explained Tristen Inagaki, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh who led both studies. “As a result, we require a prolonged period of intense caregiving following birth in order to survive.”

That instinctive desire to help others may depend on those specific areas of the brain. They guarantee more supportive behavior.

“The same mechanisms that ensure giving to others may also contribute to the long-term health effects we see from giving,” said Inagaki.

And there are plenty.

People who volunteer get sick less often and live longer.

Helping has also been shown to improve a person’s self-esteem, foster a rosier view of the world, decrease risky or problematic behaviors, and stave off depression.

Plus, the more you help others, the more you want to keep helping.

“Helping others takes the mind and emotions off the self, allowing the mind to move past anxieties and rumination,” said Stephen G. Post, PhD, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. “Even when helping others as only external action, our emotions over time tend to shift to joy and kindness, especially with good role models.”

This isn’t news for David Braverman.

The 73-year-old retired market research executive used to consider volunteering but didn’t feel he had the time.

However, an acquaintance persisted and eventually Braverman found himself visiting patients at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center for up to four hours every Monday.

“At first, I’m sure it was more about my ego: ‘Look at what I am doing for others,’” Braverman admitted. “However, it very quickly became about the people I was visiting, making smile, doing small deeds for, and just being company to others who don’t have visitors.”

It’s been over four years now and “I’ve met some of the most wonderful people of all faiths, cultures, and races,” said Braverman. “I’ve shared stories and talks about food, sports, literature, travel, and even religion. I’ve learned about my Judaism from Catholic nuns and priests. I’ve learned and talked about Islam with some. I’ve heard firsthand about living in the inner city of Baltimore.”

The bottom line, said Braverman, is “while I do think I bring something to those I visit, it turns out that in fact, it’s about me leaving the hospital on Mondays feeling better than when I get there in the morning.”

“So,” he adds, “I guess it is about me after all.”

Helping has also been shown to improve a person’s self-esteem, foster a rosier view of the world, decrease risky or problematic behaviors, and stave off depression. Getty Images

What makes a “giver”

About one-third of people take to [giving] behavior “like a duck to water,” said Post, who is also author of “Why Good Things Happen to Good People.” “Genetic set points, psycho-social-environmental factors, and one’s own attitudes all come into play.”

For instance, while children have strong empathic tendencies, “adverse childhood experiences can repress this tendency, but good parenting styles and role models enhance it,” he noted.

Being kind can be learned, too.

“It’s all about transmission, about passing the torch from one person to the next with lots of attention given to observed details like tone of voice, facial expression, minor actions, [being] present, and listening,” Post noted.

For the past 3 years, Kerrie Klein, 48, has volunteered for the National Runaway Safeline, offering help to youth in crisis who call, email, or connect via online chat.

“When someone’s feeling overwhelmed, they might not be able to see clearly what to do next — I know I’ve felt like that in my life at times,” said the Chicago resident. “Sometimes all it takes is having someone listen and help talk you through the options available, to be able to see which way to go forward.”

How she feels after her weekly two-hour shift: “Fulfilled.”

“When you feel like you’ve helped someone, it’s the best feeling in the world,” said Klein. “I can be having the worst day and not want to come into the call center, but sometimes helping someone else gives me clarity about my own challenges.”

Volunteering “gives me a different perspective on what really matters,” Klein explained. “It also makes me more motivated in other areas of life — to stop and take time with people in my life, and take care of my own health. And it’s definitely helped me to listen more to others, which is important.”

“I don’t want to look back and feel like I didn’t take any action to make the world a better place,” added Klein. “One person can make a difference, and I want to be one of those people.”

How you, too, can help

In our crazy-busy lives, time is a precious commodity. Which begs the question: Is simply pressing a “Donate Now” button online as beneficial as “boots on the ground” volunteering?

“Studies do show an effect on the mesolimbic [“reward”] pathway and degrees of increased happiness through making a donation, or even thinking about it, actually,” Post said, “but the giver needs to be thinking kindly and not just filling in a number.”

In other words, envisioning how your $20 will help put Hatchimals under the Christmas tree for kids who desperately want them — not zoning out like you do when you pay your monthly bills.

Still, despite your shortage of time, consider lending a hand this holiday season.

If you’re not sure where to begin, Points of Light and VolunteerMatch can connect you with local causes. Kids That Do Good, an online database founded by kids, lists local, regional, and national volunteer opportunities that are appropriate for children. And the Red Cross relies on volunteers to carry out 90 percent of their humanitarian work.

“Sometimes we can be overly concerned with ways that other people help us or about what we’re getting out of any given situation,” Inagaki said.

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