As the proverb in the image above depicts, momentary pleasures, like taking a nap or going fishing, are fleeting and do make us happy in the moment, but are soon gone. (There are methods to absorb and prolong even the smallest positive thing for the most impact to your brain.) The next two items, getting married and inheriting a fortune – and similar good major life changes – will create longer lasting shifts in happiness, but people adapt and their brains habituate to new levels of comfort and wealth all too quickly. Pretty soon, they want more and their brain is looking for the next good thing.
The last item, helping someone else, is an activity that can assume any shape or size, take many forms, and be ongoing. Helping somebody else is an infinite category with infinite possible returns which can accrue over a lifetime.
How Doing Good Benefits You
A wide range of research has linked different forms of doing good or altruism to better overall health and happiness, even among the sick, elderly, and depressed. Here are five reasons why doing good specifically benefits your brain:
1. You get a “helper’s high.”
In one Harvard study, researchers found that giving money to someone else raised peoples’ happiness levels more than spending it on themselves did. In another experiment where students performed five acts of kindness in a single day for six weeks, similar boosts in happiness were observed.
Science has shown that performing altruistic acts activates the regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust. Scientists also believe that giving behavior releases endorphins and oxytocin, feel good hormones, in the brain, producing a helper’s high that can last for hours and even be socially contagious.
2. Doing good builds a positive-feedback loop in your brain.
Kindness makes you happy and being happy makes you kinder. Studies suggest that the happier someone is, the more likely they are to be giving and kind. As established above, being altruistic increases happiness. The research suggests a positive feedback loop between kindness and happiness, where one encourages the other.
3. Altruistic acts create social connection and bonding.
For our ancestor’s safety and survival, your brain has an innate instinct and need to be bonded to others and to feel like it’s part of a group. Research has overwhelmingly associated social connectedness with better overall physical and mental health. To do a good deed or give to someone else usually involves some degree of social interaction, bonding, and reciprocal experience in the future.
The social interaction that comes with doing good deeds helps to promote a sense of trust and cooperation that strengthens bonds to others on the individual and community level.
4. Giving helps form an attitude of gratitude.
Whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of a good deed, that act can spark feelings of gratitude for both. Research has determined that gratitude is an essential part of happiness, health, and social bonds and it affects your brain on a biological level.
Gratitude increases dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, in your brain. In the Upward Spiral, Alex Korb explains:
The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable…
Gratitude also ups your serotonin levels. According to Korb:
One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.
Doing Good is Contagious
Doing good creates more good and so on. When we give, it elevates the emotions of the recipient of our gift and spurs a ripple effect of generosity which spreads throughout the community.
The research found that paying it forward pays off. It found that when one person behaved generously, it inspired others to behave generously later, toward different people. In fact, the researchers found that altruism could spread by three degrees, meaning that one kind act can influence dozens or even hundreds of people down the line.
A technology-inspired not-for-profit organization, Better World, has built an online game around this premise to inspire people to do more good and generate ripples of goodness around the world. The game, named The Good Cards, actually turns kindness and generosity into a game, similar to Pokemon-Go, that uses a phone app.
To join the game which is going on right now, you start with a bio-degradable The Good Card, which can be given to you by someone as part of their mission or obtained by donating as little as $2 to Better World. The card and app take you through various missions, of your choosing, and levels. Users can track their progress and the physical journey of their card once passed on and see the real impact of their efforts.
I received a card, progressed through three missions, and passed my card along. So far, my card has stayed in the city where it was “born,” but I will be curious to see where it goes and what it does. Participating in the game did leave me smiling when performing my good deeds – especially the anonymous ones, it was like I had a juicy secret – and leaves me with a case of the warm fuzzies that come back whenever I remember my secret missions.
Hey, I think they just might be on to something! You can get find out more and get your card here.
Whether you buy gifts, volunteer your time, donate money, or make a game of doing good, your acts of kindness benefit more than just you and your brain. They could start a chain reaction of generosity that ripples through your community and even around the world.