Humans are social creatures. We suffer when we’re isolated and thrive when we’re part of a community. When we extend a helping hand to members of our community when it costs us something, it’s known as altruism. Helping others doesn’t always come at a cost, but its rewards are often unclear. So why is it important? Here are ten reasons:
#1. It’s part of the human experience
Humans start showing altruism at a young age. This implies that it’s not necessarily something we’re socialized for, but rather something that’s part of our brains. Scientists theorize that helping others ensured the survival of the human race. On the surface, this doesn’t make sense when considering evolution. If altruism is part of our inherent nature, shouldn’t it be limited to people who share our genes? That’s clearly not the case as people help strangers all the time, even when it’s risky. This long-standing mystery involves many types of researchers and scientists.
#2. It might be present in other animals
When studying altruism, researchers look beyond humans to the rest of the animal world. They’ve found that animals will sometimes help each other with no clear benefit to themselves. In one study, monkeys were offered food, but when they took it, it delivered an electric shock to another monkey. The monkeys began refusing food. In 2008, a bottlenose dolphin led two beached whales to safety. In many situations, animal altruism isn’t selfless because there’s some benefit to the giver, but other cases confuse that conclusion. What exactly is going on remains a subject of research.
#3. It activates your brain’s reward centers
The idea that altruism is somehow “hardwired” in humans is supported by brain chemistry. In a Science study, a team of researchers gave $100 to participants and put them in an fMRI scanner. They were then given opportunities to donate their money to a food bank. Donations were either voluntary or involuntary, so scientists could see the difference between giving willingly or being forced to give. When participants gave willingly, there were higher amounts of dopamine in the part of the brain associated with processing unexpected rewards. This activation could explain why people continue to give even when it costs them something.
#4. It strengthens social connection
When you help someone else, you get a positive feeling in return. For the person you’ve helped, they also feel good thanks to your action. This creates a strong sense of belonging and connection between you. In communities where kindness and altruism are valued, people are more likely to feel safe and happy. The opposite is also true. In communities where no one helps each other, there isn’t as much social connection.
#5. It boosts your self-esteem
The positive feelings you get from helping others impacts how you see yourself. Research suggests that when people give, especially to people they don’t know, it increases their self-esteem. That help can include giving money, volunteering with an organization, or engaging in spontaneous acts of kindness.
#6. It can improve your health
Many factors contribute to good health. Helping others may play a role, too. A research team from the University of British Columbia gave money to a group of people with high blood pressure. Half of the participants were told to spend the money on themselves while the rest were told to spend it on someone else. A few weeks later, the people who had spent money on others had significantly lower blood pressure than those who spent the money on themselves.
#7. It can lengthen your life
Helping others isn’t only good for your health – it can help you live longer. One 2003 study looked at a group of older adults, some who were giving social support and others who were receiving it. After five years, it was giving social support that made a person more likely to still be alive at the end of the study period. This was true even when researchers controlled for factors like physical health, mental health, marital status, and so on.
#8. It’s good for the workplace
For many, the workplace is not known as a hub of kindness and altruism. Work can be competitive, which doesn’t usually align with helping others. Research shows, though, that helpful workplaces are linked to better sales, better products, and increased productivity. How coworkers help each other matters. If help is motivated by personal benefits, people tend to offer help less often. Offering help before it’s been requested is also not especially welcome in a workplace.
#9. It improves your relationships
As we already know, being helpful strengthens social connections. That leads to stronger, more fulfilling relationships. Within the context of romantic relationships, kindness, empathy, and helpfulness contribute to happiness and satisfaction. All relationships – including friends and family – benefit when people approach them with a giving mindset.
#10. It gives meaning to life
Humans have always searched for the meaning of life. Research shows it could be connected to helping others. In a preliminary study from The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers asked 400 participants how often they engaged in altruistic behaviors and how meaningful their life felt. Participants who reported more altruism found greater meaning in their lives. Why? It could be because of altruism’s connection to better relationships and social connection, which research consistently shows it’s essential to a person’s feeling of purpose.