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Do things for others

Helping others is not only good for them and a good thing to do, it also makes us happier and healthier too. Giving also connects us to others, creating stronger communities and helping to build a happier society for everyone. And it's not all about money - we can also give our time, ideas and energy. So if you want to feel good, do good! 

Why helping others matters

Doing things for others - whether small, unplanned acts or regular volunteering - is a powerful way to boost our own happiness as well of those around us. The people we help may be strangers, family, friends, colleagues or neighbours. They can be old or young, nearby or far away.

Giving isn't just about money, so you don't need to be rich. Giving to others can be as simple as a single kind word, smile or a thoughtful gesture. It can include giving time, care, skills, thought or attention. Sometimes these mean as much, if not more, than financial gifts.

Scientific studies show that helping others boosts happiness. [1] It increases life satisfaction, provides a sense of meaning, increases feelings of competence, improves our mood and reduced stress. It can help to take our minds off our own troubles too. [2]

Kindness towards others is be the glue which conncts individual happiness with wider community and societal wellbeing. Giving to others helps us connect with people and meets one of our basic human needs - relatedness. [3]

Kindness and caring also seem to be contagious. When we see someone do something kind or thoughtful, or we are on the receiving end of kindness, it inspires us to be kinder ourselves. [3][4] In this way, kindness spreads from one person to the next, influencing the behaviour of people who never saw the original act. Kindness really is the key to creating a happier, more trusting local community. [5]

Happiness and Helping

Science shows there are strong associations between happiness and helping others. Firstly, happiness helps helping. Happy people are more likely to be interested in or be inclined towards helping others. They are more likely to have recently performed acts of kindness or spent a greater percentage of their time or money helping others. [1][6][8][9]

There appears to be a relationship between happiness and helping others at every age:

  • Pre-school children who displayed empathy were more likely to have happy moods
  • High school students who said they experienced intense positive feelings were more likely to be involved in community service activities such as volunteering
  • Working adults who were happier at work were more likely to help others [2]
  • Volunteering has also been related to many benefits for senior citizens, including greater happiness and life satisfaction. [1][7]

Volunteering is also related to increased happiness irrespective of the socio-economic situation of the volunteer. [8] What's more people who give a proportion of their monthly income to chartable causes or spent it on gifts for others were found to be happier than people who did not spend on others, and this was regardless of income level. [9]

The benefits of helping others

1. Helping increases happiness

While it has long been assumed that giving also leads to greater happiness this has only recently started to be scientifically proven. For example, when participants in a study did five new acts of kindness on one day per week over a six-week period (even if each act was small) they experienced an increase in well-being, compared to control groups. [10]

In another study, participants who were given $5 or $20 to spend on others or donate to charity experienced greater happiness than people given the same amount to spend on themselves. Interestingly the amount of money did not effect the level of happiness generated. [11]

And there is now evidence that this leads to a virtuous circle - happiness makes us give more, and giving makes us happier, which leads to a greater tendency to give and so on. This effect is consistent across different cultures. [12]

It makes sense that helping others contributes to our own happiness. Scientists are reconsidering the idea of the 'selfish gene' and are exploring the evolution of altruism, cooperation, compassion and kindness. [13] Human beings are highly social creatures and have evolved as a species living with others.

If people are altruistic, they are more likely to be liked and so build social connections and stronger and more supportive social networks, which leads to increased feelings of happiness and wellbeing. [14] Indeed participating in shared tasks like community service, and other social activities, predicts how satisfied people are even after other factors are taken into account. [15]

2. Giving feels good

Giving literally feels good. In a study of over 1,700 women volunteers, scientists described the experience of a 'helpers' high'. This was the euphoric feeling, followed by a longer period of calm, experienced by many of the volunteers after helping. These sensations result from the release of endorphins, and is followed by a longer-lasting period of improved emotional well-being and sense of self-worth, feelings that in turn reduce stress and improve the health of the helper. [16]

It used to be thought that human beings only did things when they got something in return. How then could we explain people who did kind acts or donated money anonymously? Studies of the brain now show that when we give money to good causes, the same parts of the brain light up as if we were receiving money ourselves (or responding to other pleasurable stimuli such as: food, money or sex)! [17]

Giving to others activates the reward centres of our brains which make us feel good and so encourage us to do more of the same. Giving money to a good cause literally feels as good as receiving it, especially if the donations are voluntary. [18][19]

3. Giving does you good

Giving help has a stronger association with mental health than receiving it. Studies have shown that volunteers have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety and they feel more hopeful. It is also related to feeling good about oneself. It can serve to distract people from dwelling on their own problems and be grateful for what they have. [20] Volunteering is also associated with psychological wellbeing. [21]

Giving may increase how long we live. Studies of older people show that those who give support to others live longer than those who don't. This included support to friends, relatives, and neighbours and emotional support to their spouse. [22][23] In contrast, receiving support did not influence living longer.

Volunteering also appeared to predict maintenance of cognitive functioning in a study of 2,500 people in their 70's who were followed in a study lasting 8 years. Others studies have shown that amongst teenagers, volunteering has been associated with improved self-esteem, reduction in anti-social or problem behaviours and school truancy, improved attitudes to school and increased educational achievement. [25][26]

Whilst unpicking the benefits of volunteering from other factors can be hard, such as volunteers being more healthy in the first place and so more able to volunteer. The wealth of evidence does suggest some relationship and it may be that volunteering is one intentional activity that people can engage in as a strategy to increase wellbeing and maintain optimal cognitive functioning in old age. [14]

Helping: a caveat

Helping is associated with increased happiness and health, but feelng burdened by it can be detrimental, such as in the case of long-term carers. [1] There is evidence that whilst giving for pleasure is associated with higher self-esteem, life satisfaction and positive feelings, giving under pressure is not. [27] There are times when we need to give because it is the compassionate response and the right thing to do, such as in times of crisis or need.

However as a general rule we should try to match our giving activities to things that we find inherently enjoyable, in line with our own goals and feel are worthwhile for ourselves as well as the recipient. If we are happy givers, the recipients will likely benefit more and we are more likely to continue to give. [19]


[1] Post, S. G. (2005). Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It's Good to Be Good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12(2), 66-77.

[2] Midlarsky, E. (1991). Helping as coping. Prosocial Behavior: Review of Personality and Social Psychology, 12, 238-264

[3] Algoe, S. B., & Haidt, J. (2009). Witnessing excellence in action: the 'other-praising' emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(2), 105-127.

[4] Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness. NY: Penguin

[5] Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2010). Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(12), 5334-5338.

[6] Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. & Diener, E. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855

[7] Greenfields & Marks

[8] Borgonovi, F. (2008). Doing well by doing good. The relationship between formal volunteering and self-reported health and happiness. Social Science & Medicine, 66(11), 2321-2334.

[9] Anik, L,. Aknin, L. B., Norton, M. I., Dunn, E. W. (2009). Feeling Good about Giving: The Benefits (and Costs) of Self-Interested Charitable Behavior. Harvard Business School Working Paper, 10-012.

[10] Lyubomirsky, S, Sheldon, K M, & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111 - 131

[11] Dunn, E.W., Aknin,L.B. & Norton,M.I. (2008) Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319, 1687 - 1688.

[12] Aknin, LB., Barrington-Leigh, C., Dunn, E.W.,Helliwell, J.F., Biswas-Diener, R., Kemeze,I., Nyende, P., Ashton- Janes, C.E. & Norton, M.I. (2010) Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal. NBER Working Paper No. 16415

[13] Vaillant, G.E.. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: How we are wired for Faith, Hope and Love. NY: Broadway Books

[14] Dunn, E.W., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. (in press). If money doesn't make you happy then you probably aren't spending it right. Journal of Consumer Psychology.

[15] Harlow RE, Cantor N (1996) 'Still participating after all these years: a study of life task participation in later life' Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71: 1235-1249

[16] Luks, A. A. (1988). Helper's high. Psychology Today, 22(10), 39.

[17] Moll, J., Krueger, F., Zahn, R., Pardini, M., de Oliveira-Souza, R., & Grafman, J. (2006). Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103(42), 15623-15628.

[18] Fehr, E., & Camerer, C. F. (2007). Social neuroeconomics: the neural circuitry of social preferences. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(10), 419-427

[19] Harbaugh, W. T., Mayr, U., & Burghart, D. R. (2007). Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations. Science, 316(5831), 1622-1625.

[20] Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness. NY: Penguin

[21] Piliavin, J., & Siegl, E. (2007). Health Benefits of Volunteering in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. Journal of Health & Social Behavior, 48(4), 450-464.

[22] Brown, S. L., Nesse, R. M., Vinokur, A. D., & Smith, D. M. (2003). Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it: results from a prospective study of mortality. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 14(4), 320-327.

[23] Brown, S. L., Smith, D. M., Schulz, R., Kabeto, M. U., Ubel, P. A., Poulin, M., Yi, J., Kim, C., & Langa, K. M. (2009). Caregiving behavior is associated with decreased mortality risk. Psychological Science; Apr2009, 20(4), 488-494.

[24] Yaffe, K. (2009) Predictors of maintaining cognitive function in older adults: The Health ABC Study, Neurology, 72, 2029-2035

[25] Piliavin, J. (2003). Doing well by doing good: Benefits for the benefactor. In C. M. Keyes, J. Haidt, C. M. Keyes, J. Haidt (Eds.) , Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (pp. 227-247). Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

[26] Piliavin, J., & Siegl, E. (2007). Health Benefits of Volunteering in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. Journal of Health & Social Behavior, 48(4), 450-464. Warburton, J. (2006). Volunteering in later life: is it good for your health? Journal for the Institute of Volunteering Research, 8, 3-15. Wilson, J. (2000). Volunteering. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 215

[27] Gebauer,J.E., Riketta, M., Broemer, P. & Maio, G.R. (2008) Pleasure and pressure based prosocial motivation: Divergent relations to subjective well-being. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 399-420


Do things for others

Giving 200

Mother Theresa

"We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love"

- Mother Theresa

Inspiring words

Winston Churchill

"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give."

- Winston Churchill

For me, helping others is about both the big things - like the job we do - and the small things - just the way we are with people. Through my work I've chosen to do something that I hope makes a positive contribution, and through my daily actions I try to be a force for good. I'm no saint but I always try to look out for people and help where I can.

Mark, Kingston, Surrey

24 Feb 2011, 11:47
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