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Why doing good feels good: the "helper's high"

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Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Community Perspective:

Every night when my son puts his three-year-old daughter to bed, he asks her, “What was the best part of your day?”

When I go to bed, I review the day as well, “Have I done something nice for somebody else today?” A lot of the time I don’t come up with anything.

But sometimes I think about the note I wrote to the eye doctor because she saw me on an emergency basis, or the roses I bought for the woman who is so helpful about scheduling my car for maintenance. I brought a home-made apple pie for the veterinarian who came to the house, after hours, to put my suffering collie to sleep.

Thinking about what I did for others, I’m convinced, gives me a warm glow and helps me get to sleep.

What I’ve experienced is what psychologists call the “helper’s high” or “giver’s glow.”

An impressive amount of research demonstrates that doing good for others not only makes them feel good but makes you feel good too and leads to a happier and healthier life.

Stephen Post, professor of preventive medicine and bioethics at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, sums up this research in his article “It’s Good to Be Good: Science Says It’s So,” published in Heath Progress in 2009.

“The ‘helper’s high,’’” Post writes, “was first discovered by Allan Luks, who surveyed thousands of volunteers across the United States and found that people who helped other people consistently stated that their heath improved when they started to volunteer. “About half reported experiencing a ‘high’ feeling; 43 percent felt stronger and more energetic; 28 percent experienced a sensation of inner warmth; 22 percent felt calmer and less depressed; 21 percent experienced greater feelings of self-worth, and 13 percent experienced fewer aches and pains.”

In a survey by the National Opinion Research Center of 27,000 adults, those who had jobs relating to helping others, like physical therapists and special education teachers, reported higher work satisfaction and higher levels of happiness than people whose jobs did not provide altruistic gratification.

Some studies even report that that just thinking about giving a charitable donation activates the reward centers of the brain.

Scientists have various theories about why giving has such strong effects. One of Post’s theories, for example, is that giving affects parts of the brain linked to the production of dopamine, which then affects the brain’s pleasure centers.

Why are our brains wired this way? From an evolutionary perspective, giving to others strengthens the community. Someday you will be in trouble and need help. You need a bank of favors (giving to others) to strengthen the chances that you will get favors back when you need them. The mutual exchange of favors doesn’t necessarily bring the helper’s high but it’s important to individual security.

One of my students did a detailed analysis of giving and returning favors in a remote Alaskan community. The community functioned through an elaborate system of favors. For example, if one person shared his freezer so someone else could store his moose, that act of kindness was like money in the bank.

The person was expected to return the favor in some other way, like driving the long road to Fairbanks with a shopping list for other people in the town.

The people in the town, she wrote, also knew who the moochers were, the ones who just took and didn’t participate in the “favor exchange” on which the community depended. The community ignored the person, lowering his chances of getting a favor when he needed one.

Just because “acts of kindness” can pay off doesn’t mean the person who does them is selfish. Human beings are wired to enjoy being good to others. And they get an immediate reward as well — the “helper’s high.”

Judith Kleinfeld, a longtime columnist for the Daily News-Miner, holds a doctorate from Harvard and is a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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