If you’ve ever served Thanksgiving dinner at an animal shelter, rang the bell for the Salvation Army, laced up your sneakers for a charity run/walk, or donated to a popular nonprofit, you probably remember a moment when you felt so have felt something good. Social scientists call this feeling of satisfaction the “helper high.”
It’s good for your body, too, says Stephen G. Post, PhD, author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping. “We have begun to discover that there is something physiologically going on in this process of helping others that not only makes people happier but also reports greater health,” Post says.
Back in 1988, an analysis of 1,700 female volunteers found that 68% said they felt a sense of calm after volunteering, similar to that of physical activity. Decades later, studies used MRI image scans to track brain activity to explain why. In a small study of 19 people, simply writing a charity check lit up the brain’s mesolimbic reward system and sent feel-good chemicals into the body. When this generosity is practiced face-to-face, levels of oxytocin (the calming hormone released when a mother breastfeeds her baby) and pain-killing endorphins also rise, Post says.
When we shift our minds away from our own problems to focus on the needs of others, levels of stress hormones like cortisol drop. One study followed 1,654 older adults for 4 years. During that time, those who volunteered at least 200 hours a year had a 40% lower risk of developing high blood pressure than non-volunteers.
An evolutionary reason may partially explain why our reward centers light up when we help someone else. Working in a team, Post says, could have helped us survive as a species.
You’re happy to help. But with so many great organizations and causes, how do you get started?
Look for opportunities that make sense to you and that align with your interests and personality. Would you like to use your professional skills? Would you rather do something active outdoors, such as B. cleaning up a park or helping build a hiking trail, or a quieter indoor activity, e.g. B. help with a literacy organization? Would you rather volunteer with a large group of people or focus on smaller projects?
Also consider your schedule. You can decide whether you want to volunteer regularly or only occasionally.
According to the Post, these are the best ways to get the most out of volunteering:
Help others deal with something you have faced yourself. Studies show that people who recover from alcohol use disorders are more likely to stay sober when they help others recover from alcohol problems. Likewise, some people with chronic pain reported less pain when they served as trained volunteers helping someone with a similar condition.
Do what you’re good at. When volunteers feel like they’re just getting in the way, the experience can backfire and add to their stress. Choose a volunteer opportunity where you can make a real difference.
Do you mean it? Those who contribute to organizations they are passionate about tend to see stronger physical responses. “Motivation is important,” says Post. “When people are genuinely altruistic in their actions, they respond better.”