When you give up your seat for an older or disabled person, don’t you feel a little righteous? You may not actually be morally superior to everyone around you, but you did help and you should feel good. I’ll tell you why in this blog.
These days I’m looking for a new job in Portland, and found myself explaining in cover letters that I wanted to serve “at risk”, “vulnerable”, or "underserved" populations. After a few times stating my commitment so firmly, I couldn’t help but question my motives. On top of that, when I can’t take the job hunt anymore, I’ve noticed that I volunteer to help a friend to clean, move, make curtains, whatever. And it makes me feel better! It may come as no surprise to you that being helpful makes people happier. Study after study have demonstrated that an orientation towards helping others leads to better personal mental health.
Humanitarianism and healthcare are both “helping professions”, as are social work, ministry, education, and the like. People go into these careers for all sorts of reasons. Some are healthy, like being inspired by a profound experience with a nurse or teacher. Some are not so healthy, like needing to be in a position of power or control. Some just do it for the high, the “helper’s high” that is. I definitely get the high, but I also choose this work because it’s challenging. It puts me in a position where I have to hold to light my own assumptions, judgments, words, and actions, and that’s exciting to me.
Back to the high. Technically, you can get the benefits of the helper’s high not only from physically helping someone, but simply from being generous, compassionate, or kind. In general, you get more of these:
Oxytocin – the hormone that is famously featured in mother-infant bonding and orgasms. It acts as a buffer to the “fight or flight” stress response, protecting your body from stress in broad strokes. That’s how it got its nickname the “tend and befriend” hormone. It’s also become clear that oxytocin directly protects your heart – lowers blood pressure, slows heart rate, protects tissue from inflammation and oxidative damage, and calms the nervous system.
Endorphins – these group of chemicals are our body’s homemade version of morphine, also famous for making you feel good. They are released when you do things like exercise and eat chocolate, and behave as natural pain killers. They bind the same receptors as opioids like morphine and heroin, then block the sensation of pain and induce that euphoric feeling that gets people hooked. Much safer to be hooked on helping.
Dopamine – Dopamine is an important multitasking chemical with roles in the brain, circulatory system, and digestive system. When engaged in acts of kindness, the dopamine-producing circuits light up. To simplify for our purposes here, dopamine is the chemical that motivates you to work hard to achieve your goals. Yes, it’s your internal cheerleader.
In summary, helping others is literally good for your heart, relieves pain and stress, and motivates you to achieve your own goals. Next time you’re feeling down, dull, anxious, or confused, try doing something small to help a friend or stranger. It’s cool to be kind, but it’s also really good for your health!