Does Altruism Make You Happy

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The English Oxford Dictionary defines altruism as “selfless concern for the well-being of others.”  Altruism encompasses caring and kindness without the expectation of anything in return.  Perhaps not always overtly visible, but altruism can be found just about anywhere.  Altruism can be rolled up in small acts of kindness, such as holding the door open for a stranger, allowing a car to merge into your lane, or rolling up to the Starbucks drive thru only to find that the Toyota in front of you has already paid for your caramel mochaccino.  Altruism is equally visible in larger situations, such as an individual checking off the organ donor box on a license renewal, a volunteer fire fighter running into a burning building, or a Good Samaritan pulling over to the side of the road to help a car accident victim.  Since the very essence of human existence is based on survival and self-preservation, it begs the question of why altruism is so prevalent in our society.  The fact of the matter is that altruism prevails because it simply feels good to make others feel good.

Altruism causes physical changes in a person’s brain, as a good deed activates pleasure centers, prompting mood enhancing effects.  Altruism triggers a release of hormones called endorphins, which stimulate areas of the brain controlling mood and emotion.  In the last decade, research has studied the “helper’s high”, which is the emotional and physical reaction that occurs after one performs an act of kindness.  Studies have found that a person’s stress hormones decrease, antibodies increase, and increased levels of oxytocin are released when one performs an altruistic act.  Thus, a proverbial state of emotional ecstasy is created within the brain.

Social connectedness has long been associated with a person’s physical, emotional, and mental well being.  Altruism can lead to a person feeling an increased sense of connection to others, thus bolstering friendships, relationships, and bonds to the community.  In this sense, altruism can serve to enhance a person’s belonging and to reduce isolation.  Helping, donating, or volunteering for a cause can make a person feel part of a larger movement.  This in itself has buffering effects, as a person finds themselves making an impact and contributing to a worthy cause. 

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Generosity and giving are correlated with positive mental health outcomes and longevity.  Altruism lowers stress levels, builds immunity, and bolsters energy.  Doing for others provides people with a sense of inner peace and fulfillment.  Individuals obtain a sense of joy when they see another person happy.  This would explain the old adage that “to give is always better than to receive.” In addition, helping those less fortunate can provide a sense of perspective, as people tend to realize that their lives are not as bad as they originally thought.

The truth is individuals are unknowingly rewarded for their “selfless concern”.  The appreciative look and heartfelt thank you given to one holding the door, the giant wave of gratitude from a car merging in, or the exhilarating thought of how a person’s face looked when they discovered that their Starbucks was paid for is enough to energize, bring joy, and keep one paying it forward.  Altruism gives people perspective, makes them feel like their contributions matter, and connects them to a greater cause.  An organ donor, volunteer firefighter, and Good Samaritan have different faces, are representative of different cultures, and come from varying backgrounds, but all share one important similarity.  Their unique “selfless concerns” bond them in a way that fosters a special kind of connectedness.  Simply put, being altruistic makes them all really happy.   

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.