Helping others is said to help people feel better and happier. The good feeling that comes with being kind may be due to being able to act on something with purpose.
But research suggests scientific evidence for the happiness that comes with showing altruistic behaviors. In fact, recent studies found that lending a hand can improve one's health and may even help cope with pain.
Scientists at Peking University in China uncovered the reason why: the experience giving of giving deactivates regions of the brain that react to painful stimulation.
Buffering experience with unpleasant conditions
The studies show consistent behavioral and neural evidence that doing good deeds, especially in threatening situations, may ease painful feelings in humans.
Altruistic behavior "has been cherished in human society since prehistoric times," the researchers said, as per the Daily Mail UK. They noted that this cherished behavior is the reason why they wanted to find the benefits of acting selflessly.
"It enables group members to collectively survive various crises, such as food shortages and natural disasters," they said.
However, the researchers noted that doing good deeds may be costly for people considering that it involves providing other people with their resources—be it time, money, or social support—leading to reduced resources for the altruistic individual.
The scientists claim their findings will provide a better understanding of the mechanism of human social behavior and how people manage their pain.
"Our findings suggest that incurring personal costs to help others may buffer the performers from unpleasant conditions," said lead researcher Yilu Wang.
"The prevalence of altruism under life-threatening circumstances raises an important yet poorly understood question: What is happening within the individual at the time when he or she helps," Wang added.
Being kind to reduce pain
Most of the early studies and theories on the topic focus on the long-term and indirect benefits of altruism. Veering away from this, the studies—which look into altruistic behavior and pain levels—presented instant gains for altruistic individuals who are under painful conditions.
These series of studies tested numerous scenarios of altruism in 287 people. One of the studies found that people who volunteered to donate blood after an earthquake felt less pain compared to those who did a routine test, even with the former situation using a larger needle and drawing a much larger volume of blood.
Meanwhile, the other study revealed those who voluntarily gave their time to revise a handbook for children of migrant workers are less likely to feel pain when exposed to cold temperatures, CNN reports.
Another research looked into pain levels of cancer patients living with chronic pain. These patients were divided into two groups; one that was asked to clean and cook for themselves and the other for others living at their treatment center.
Pain levels also dropped for those who helped others in this scenario, CNN says, noting that pain was reduced by over 62% for those who did the work for their benefit.
However, the most telling study involved asking participants to consider donating money for orphans, with those who chose to do the donation being asked to rate how helpful their act would be.
Those participants then underwent an MRI brain scan while receiving electric shock to their hands. Analysis of the brain scans showed those who donated have pain-control centers reacting less to the painful sensation compared to those who did not donate.
Interestingly, the more people believe that their good deeds were helpful, the less their brains responded to the painful stimulation.
A sense of purpose
While giving away one's resources for other people lead to tangible loss, the researchers said it brings fort untangible benefits for the giver such as increased self-esteem and less depression.
They added that people also relate good deeds to the experience of meaning in life, "that is, seeing one’s life and existence as having value, purpose, and direction."
This experience of life—of having a purpose and value—may also explain why altruistic individuals experience less pain in physically threatening situations.
According to Fox5, a 2017 study claims altruism can reduce the pain of chronic pain sufferers while also improving their sense of purpose. It found that increased time spent volunteering has a "significant mediating effect" on easing pain and depression.
Authors of the recent study said activities such as volunteering may have an important role in improving health and well-being, considering that people with chronic pain experience a loss on their role in society.
"In one study, chronic pain patients who participated in volunteer activities reported both decreased pain and ‘a sense of purpose," they wrote.
Role theory may also explain the findings of the recent study, Fox5 says, albeit partially. However, it’s likely there are other factors at play as well—including “helper’s high,” or the “warm glow” people feel with the dopamine release that comes with altruistic actions.
The results of the provide additional scientific evidence that supports the benefits of being kind, but it should be noted that more research is needed to determine how doing good deeds can be incorporated into therapy. For the meantime, lending a hand can still give you an all-around health boost.