As many charities will tell you, the feeling you get from giving to those in need is a reward in itself. Well, now this assertion is backed by research! Scientists from the University of Oregon recently used fMRI machines to study the brain activities of women and monitor changes in emotions and thought patterns. They then gave the women $100 and, as expected, the pleasure centers of their brains lit up. In a later part of the experiment, the women were given a choice to donate some of the money to a charity, and those who did again experienced an activation of the brain’s pleasure centers. This second part of the experiment is significant, showing that we actually do receive rewards from seeing others receive good things--a scientific basis for altruism.
“If you talk to people who run nonprofits or solicit charity, they say that if you’re feeling depressed in your life, you should get out there and do something to support others,” asserts Dr. Bill Harbaugh, one of the researchers involved with the study. “We find evidence of this with our study.”
This supports what I've found in my own life, and have often recommended to others: helping others helps us feel happier with ourselves and in our lives, providing reserves against emotional stress. For more on helping others, see this article on Reducing Stress and Increasing Happiness With Altruism.