Humans are social creatures. We are shaped and influenced by our communities. Helping others is ingrained in our DNA. For years, psychologists have studied how our social interactions affect us as people. They have created multiple experiments, some spanned over decades, to find out how social interactions can condition our characters. And now the results are in, and they are surprising, to say the least.
Recent studies found that pro-social behavior is a key factor to our happiness. We enjoy being part of our communities, and we love helping our communities prosper. In fact, recent studies indicate that helping others might be the most rewarding thing we do in our entire lives. Here’s why.
Our day-to-day lives can provoke any emotion imaginable. We are sad, happy, anxious, furious, or frustrated. But every time one of those emotions surfaces, we find a way to regulate it. Sometimes we embrace it, especially if we’re happy. Other times, we calm down and the sentiment passes.
At times, however, we might feel that our emotions are overwhelming. And then, most of us will turn to others for support. Some of us rely on someone within the family to vent, some turn to friends, while others turn to specialists like psychologists. Whether we talk on the phone for a while or we meet up for coffee, a simple discussion with someone else seems to take the pressure off our shoulders. And that, according to the latest studies, is totally normal.
Social regulation of emotion is essential for our normal behavior. Whether we help children get over tantrums, comfort our friends after breakups, or we receive advice on how to get along with our bosses, we often engage in social regulation of emotion. In fact, by either offering or receiving emotional support, we help ourselves and others regulate our emotions at the same time.
The most common ways of helping others regulate their emotions are through acceptance and reappraisal. When we accept someone else’s opinion, we show empathy and let them know we validate their feelings. By reappraising someone else’s situation, we help them view their situation from another perspective. But even though we might be the ones offering advice, helping others navigate through stressful situations enhances our emotion regulation skills, which improves our emotional wellbeing in the long run.
A 2017 study showed that, by helping others regulate their emotions, we have better emotional and cognitive responses. Reappraising others’ situation helps us reappraise our own, which can provide long-term benefits to our daily lives. Moreover, the more we help other people, the less depressed we feel. High levels of self-focused attention are fairly common in those who suffer from depression. By switching our attention from ourselves to others and helping them get over their problems, we actually help treat our own depression. In fact, the study concludes that those of us who provide emotional support to others experience better psychological outcomes than those who receive it.
While this might sound too good to be true, it’s actually based on an analytical review of 20 years of studies on generosity and altruism. Helping other people increases our sense of meaning. Whether we help our neighbors carry their groceries or teach children to spell, we realize our lives are meaningful, and that increases our self-worth. There is a close relationship between our social environment and our health. Social isolation and stress are some of the most significant predictors of morbidity and mortality. Helping others not only stimulates social interaction but also buffers the negative effects stress has on our bodies.
Those of us who constantly spend time helping people have reduced mortality rates. Helping others increases our self-worth, and that lowers the stress we experience and increases our happiness, leading to longer, more meaningful lives.
Performing generous acts makes us and the people around us happier, and it can produce a host of benefits. And it doesn’t take a neurobiologist to figure out that doing nice things for other people makes us feel good. After all, that’s why most of us buy presents for friends and family during the Holiday season.
But a new study presented in 2017 suggests that generosity can also promote successful life outcomes. By performing deliberate selfless acts, we experience a boost in our creativity, work productivity, social relationships, and physical health.
Being more creative might not seem like an advantage at a first glance, but it can actually be very helpful. Creative people are more likely to come with innovative and unexpected solutions to any given problem, and this can help them further their careers.
Talking of careers, generosity can actually increase our work productivity. Scientists believe this happens because helping others lowers our stress levels. People who are less stressed can concentrate better, and they can complete a task in less time than those who are.
Being generous and donating time or money can be considered a successful networking exercise. Donating money can connect us with influential NGOs or fundraisers while donating our time can connect us with interesting or even fascinating causes and people.
Helping others increases our self-esteem. And the great thing is, it doesn’t really matter if we donate money, clothes, or just our time. If we engage in selfless acts of kindness, our brains will reward us.
Many of us are familiar with the warm feeling we get from helping someone. That feeling might only last for a brief moment, but it’s definitely present when we do something good. Something selfless. Scientists believe that the “warm glow” of pro-social behavior is one of the drivers of generosity for humans. When we do something for someone else, our brains release dopamine and serotonin into our bloodstream. Dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters involved in our motivation and reward behaviors. The molecules are often called “happiness molecules”, for a good reason.
Dopamine is the molecule responsible for our satisfaction and pleasure. This molecule makes us feel happy, and our brains release it into our bloodstream to reward us for accomplishing something they deem worthy.
Serotonin is the molecule responsible for our feelings of satisfaction and general wellness. The brain releases this molecule when we do something it likes, motivating us to repeat the experience in the future.
Our brains like it when we do selfless acts of kindness, and they reward us with serotonin and dopamine every time we do so, making us feel good.
But performing selfless acts not only feels good, but it also does us good. Constantly performing small acts of selfless good increases our confidence. Generosity makes us realize we’re worth more than we previously believed. It shows us we can actually do good and have a positive impact on the world around us. And by switching our attention from ourselves to the people around us, we become less self-centered and somehow more aware of our personal problems. By helping others get over their problems, we tend to compare them with our own, framing our problems in new perspectives. Not only does that help us find better solutions to our problems, but it also helps us be more confident in our abilities to solve them.
Helping other people increases our self-worth, which in turn increases our self-esteem. Knowing we can help someone makes us more confident in our own strengths, which can make significant improvements in our lives.
Helping others can motivate us to lead meaningful lives. We cannot rise up to our full potential if we live comfortable lives without too many demands. By helping others, we step out of our comfort zone. And one of the great things about stepping out of our comfort zones is that we can find more about ourselves.
Our lives are full of routines. It doesn’t really matter if we love our jobs and daily activities. At some point, live becomes monotonous. Selfless acts allow us to break that monotony and do some good at the same time. The more versatile our daily experiences, the more perspectives we will have into what we and the people around us need.
Helping others helps us dig within ourselves to overcome our bad habits. It enables us to overcome hardships and help others simply for the sake of helping. One of the benefits of helping is that it doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Helping others is not about the number of hours we put into the act, it’s about the amount of humanity and thought we put into it. Every small step counts, as long as we do it in the right direction.
And we’re not talking about romantic relationships alone. Relationships require generosity. And generosity improves relationships and promotes social connection. When we help people, we are more likely to be rewarded with the same behavior. And at the end of the day, every relationship we have is a process of giving and receiving, whether we trade in information, emotion, money, or time.
We always notice generosity, whether we’re receiving it or we’re simply bystanders when it happens. And when we notice a generous act, we tent to imitate it, which means generosity is contagious. Doing good will not only benefit us and those receiving it, but it will also benefit those around us.
Even though we are social creatures, humans are also selfish. And that’s not a voluntary act, it’s a reflex one, something ingrained in our DNA. Humanity reached its abundance phase in the last decades. Until now, most of our ancestors knew only hardships. Food was not abundant, and sometimes even water was scarce. Preventive medicine was not a known concept, and we had to rely on a handful of medicinal plants to treat all the diseases in existence. We were not generous people because life was hard as it was. We needed to save up all our resources to prevent starvation in the case of floods, fires, or other natural disasters. And that behavior is now written in our DNA. We are inherently selfish.
Generosity is a concept encouraged by almost all religions, and our ancestors were generous at times, especially after listening to sermons. But they did not give to the poor for the benefits of their conscience or moral guidelines, they were usually generous for the sake of their immortal souls or for the sake of appearances. Nobody wanted to be singled out as the town’s cheapskate. Civilization changed and evolved, but our tendency to hoard resources didn’t.