Wow. That was my first thought when I saw that a French tourist had jumped into New York's East River to help a father rescue his two-year-old daughter. No one knows his name because he slipped away unnoticed. It's always so inspiring and heart-warming to learn of such selflessness. And, although such heroics may have incredible splash value (even though he wasn't in much danger of drowning; a dip in the East River has its own hazards), they also bring to mind more ordinary acts of selflessness; such as people who volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, bake cookies for school fund raisers, and help little old ladies across the street (although I must admit I've never actually seen this particular act). The more skeptical among us might ask whether such acts - although nice-are really of any good for the doer.
The scientific research on altruism answers with a resounding yes. It supports the "obvious fact" that being kind and giving makes many people happy. Not only does being altruistic support people's self-image as compassionate human beings, it also feels meaningful. People gain a sense of accomplishment when they see others benefit from their efforts. And, importantly, the act of helping provides approval and appreciation as they connect with others. In addition to all this, by giving in person to strangers, people improve their health and reduce their stress. For those who suffer with pain, they became less aware of it.
Equally (if not more) important is the self-perpetuation of altruism. Simply put, being kind feels good, so people do it again. In fact, some research has suggested that being habitually altruistic raises dopamine levels in the brain, like cocaine and heroine do, but to a lesser degree. Exercising provides a similar feeling, as in the "runner's high." The "helper's high" involves feeling a sense of calm, greater self-worth, and an absence of emotional stress. This, of course, motivates people to continue giving-which helps both the giver and the recipients. You can also enjoy a kind of helper's high afterglow just by recalling how it felt to be performing good deeds for others-something you don't get from remembering a sweaty workout.
If you want a taste of what it feels like to be altruistic, you can readily find little opportunities in day-to-day situations. Offer to let the harried person behind you in line at the store go first. Give a supportive smile to the new cashier struggling to do her job. And, pay attention to how good you feel from these small gestures.
If the small stuff goes well and you want to do more, or you are ready to go right for the "helper's high" fix, then here are some tips on how to make the most from being altruistic:
• Decide on a cause that is important to you. Call a local nonprofit agency representing that cause and ask about volunteer opportunities. If you can imagine enjoying those jobs, offer to volunteer.
• Volunteer for jobs that offer the opportunity to help others in person.
• Volunteer to help within an organization so that you can work alongside others. One study showed that volunteers who worked in a group had fewer doctor visits and enjoyed more positive feelings.
• Make volunteering a regular part of your life. You can also get an addition "boost" from occasionally being particularly generous. Psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky conducted a study that showed people who do all of their acts of kindness in a single day benefit more than those who do small acts through the week.
• Make a habit of looking for opportunities to help out in your everyday life. If you pay attention, you will find chances that you never noticed before. Many years ago, I had an "aha" experience regarding this. A couple of Girl Scouts selling candy approached a friend, and he purchased ten chocolate bars (which I knew he had no need for). This immediately generated two very broad smiles. I was impressed and felt a vicarious good feeling as I absorbed a lesson that I have never forgotten-giving is easy, doesn't have to cost a lot, and it feels good.
Whatever you choose to do, make sure it comes from within. With your heart in a cause and your hands offering help, you will undoubtedly have a smile on your face. This is what gives optimists hope that the spirit of giving will grow. And, this is what I imagine the French tourist was doing when he jumped in to help save that little girl.
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She is also the 'Relationships' expert on WebMD's Sex and Relationships Health Exchange.