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The Neuroscience of Giving

Proof that helping others helps you.

The altruism center of the brain is considered a "deep brain structure," part of the primitive brain. We know when we see a child in trouble, our instincts kick in and we spring into action before we can even think.

Humans are social animals, so it is no surprise that we are wired to help one another. In our complex modern society, there are many ways to give and the good news is that we now understand that both the giver and receiver benefit from the relationship. Neuroscience has demonstrated that giving is a powerful pathway for creating more personal joy and improving overall health.

While the brain is remarkably complex, the neurochemical drivers of happiness are quite easy to identify. Dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin make up the Happiness Trifecta. Any activity that increases the production of these neurochemicals will cause a boost in mood. It’s really that simple.

But the benefits don’t stop at moods! Serotonin is connected to sleep, digestion, memory, learning, and appetite. Dopamine is connected to motivation and arousal. Oxytocin “the cuddle hormone” is among the most ancient of our neurochemicals and has a powerful effect on the brain and the body. When oxytocin begins to flow, blood pressure decreases and the foundation for sexual arousal is built. Bonding increases, social fears are reduced and trust and empathy are enhanced. Oxytocin is also an anti-inflammatory and reduces pain and enhances wound healing.

So if giving allows us to secrete all the chemicals at once, we owe it to ourselves to give as often as possible!

Helping others can take on many forms. Small repeated boosts of the Happiness Trifecta will produce the most benefit so find ways to give and to give often. Opening a door, helping a stranger change a tire, donating money or time, and giving advice are all wonderful ways to give. Anytime we step outside of ourselves long enough to help someone else, something wonderful is waiting for us when we return: the Happiness Trifecta neurochemicals are all boosted!

Helping others triggers impacts to our brain in many positive ways:

  • Empathy: There are structures in the brain that are dedicated to helping you see things from the perspectives of others, so these mental processes get some great exercise when you put yourself in the shoes of another person and try to give them what they need.

  • Mirror Neurons: Helping others is often a highly social activity, which creates a beautiful cycle of smiling. When you smile the whole world smiles with you because you are triggering their mirror neurons. Both the giver and the receiver can directly impact the other's brain in a positive way.

  • The Happiness Trifecta: Helping others triggers a release of oxytocin, which has the effect of boosting your mood and counteracts the effects of cortisol (the dreaded stress hormone). Interestingly, the higher your levels of oxytocin, the more you want to help others. When oxytocin is boosted, so are serotonin and dopamine!

When most people think of giving, they may have too narrow a focus. All giving works wonders, not just cash given once or twice a year. How can you help others? Is there a cause you support? A friend that needs help? A stranger that needs a random act of kindness? You should fill every day with small acts of giving, as this is an effective way to bring happiness to yourself and others. Even just smiling at someone is an act of giving and will brighten both of your days. Starbucks owes its extraordinary success not just to the addictive powers of caffeine, but also to the power of the smile. You can give one away multiple times a day at no cost, and in the process boost your mood and your health.

Don’t limit yourself to stock phrases. The next time you check out at the grocery store, try telling the person, “I hope everyone is nice to you today!” You’re almost guaranteed to get a smile. "Great to see you!" and "You did a good job on that project!” cost you nothing, yet everyone gains. Combine the words with a smile and you’ll boost your investment and your return.

So give, give often, and bask in the mental and physical effects of your actions.

More from Eva Ritvo M.D.
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