It’s often been said that it’s better to give than to receive, but did you know that this cliché is actually backed by research? While many of us feel too stressed and busy to worry about helping others with their burdens, or would like to think about doing good deeds when we have more ‘spare’ time, energy and money, altruism is its own reward, and can actually help you relieve stress. Altruistic acts can improve your quality of life in several ways, and are absolutely worth the effort. Here are some ways that helping others helps you:
Altruism and Psychological WellbeingStudies show that altruism is good for your emotional well-being, and can measurably enhance your peace of mind. For example, one study found that dialysis patients, transplant patients and family members who became support volunteers for other patients experienced increased personal growth and emotional well-being. Another study on patients with multiple sclerosis showed that those who offered other MS patients peer support actually experienced greater benefits than their supported peers, including more pronounced improvement on confidence, self-awareness, self-esteem, depression and daily functioning. Those who offered support generally found that their lives were dramatically changed for the better.
Altruism and Increased Social SupportStudies also show that what goes around generally does come around. More specifically, when people make altruistic personal sacrifices, they end up reaping what they sow in the form of favors from others. These individuals earn the reputation as altruistic people and end up receiving favors from others who they may not have even directly helped. The favors and social support you ‘earn’ through altruism, combined with the good feelings you get from helping others (see above), more than make up for sacrifices made in the name of altruism.
Keeping Things In PerspectiveMany people don’t realize the strong impact that their comparisons have on their outlook. However, your expectations of life and the people you compare yourself to can make a real difference in your level of life satisfaction. For example, your home may seem shabby to you if you’re comparing it to the living rooms you see in the pages of decorating magazines, or it may seem palatial and opulent compared to the structures inhabited by people in impoverished countries. Helping others in need, especially those who are less fortunate than you, can provide you with a sense of perspective on how fortunate you are to have what you do in life -- be it health, money, or a safe place to sleep, and help you focus less on the things you feel you lack. Helping others with their problems can also help you gain a more positive perspective on the things in life that cause you stress.
Building a Better CommunityWhen you do something nice for someone else, often the positive effects go beyond just you and that other person, influencing your whole community. One of my favorite illustrations of this phenomenon is in the movie Pay It Forward where one boy’s good deeds have far-reaching positive consequences. When you do nice things for others, you often enable them to do nice things for others, and the phenomenon grows. Your children and your friends may see your good example and behave in more altruistic ways as well. As Ghandi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world," and you can contribute to a more positive community.
Altruism and Stress ReliefWhen you feel stressed and overwhelmed, you may feel like you’re least able to give. However, acts of altruism can be a great form of stress relief. Studies have shown that the act of giving can activate the area of the brain associated with positive feelings, lifting your spirits, and making you feel better the more you give. And given that altruism can lead to lasting emotional well-being, a more positive perspective, a positive effect on others, and better social standing, altruism certainly does the job as a healthy means for relieving stress and increasing life satisfaction.
Brunier G, Graydon J, Rothman B, Sherman C, Liadsky R. The Psychological Well-Being of Renal Peer Support Volunteers. Journal of Advanced Nursing. April 2002.
Schwartz CE, Sendor M. Helping Others Helps Oneself: Response Shift Effects in Peer Support. Social Science and Medicine. June 1999.
Harbaugh WT, Mayr U, Burghart DR. Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations. Science, June 2007.