Women's health * Men's health * Mental wellbeing

Why altruism is good for you

Why altruism is good for you More than karma...

The summer holidays are coming to an end, and you are feeling a bit morose.

What to do? Well, 'Be kind to humankind week' is upon us, and it promotes practising kindness towards others, on the premise that good deeds are rewarded in kind.

Feeling a bit cynical about this? We've looked at the research, and there's good grounds to believe that being nice to others is also good for you.

Good deeds

Think about the last time you helped someone. Did it feel good? Did you feel a sense of accomplishment?

You probably did, and this may have had a positive effect on your well being. Indeed, research has found that helping others can actually reduce stress and improve your mental health.

A study of churchgoers found that people who offer love and support to others have better mental health than those who only receive help.

It appears that being habitually altruistic can raise dopamine levels in the brain, which makes the altruist happier and calmer, and gives them a greater feeling of self-worth.

What's more, helping others may help you fend off your own problems and anxiety.

By helping others, you focus outside the self - away from the inward looking nature of anxiety and depression.

But the benefit of being helpful does not merely come from the good deed.

The recipients mood is likely to be improved by your deed, and through empathy, your mood benefits too. So good deeds keep on giving. You help someone, which makes you feel good; they feel better, and make you feel even better.

That said, you should not give beyond your abilities - if you do, you may experience worse mental health as a result.

People who are already psychologically solid are better able to help others, so dispense your good deeds with an eye on what is possible for you.

Origins of altruism

But where does altruism come from, and why is it a tenet of civilised society?

Scientists believe that the propensity for altruism evolved, as it communicated to a potential mate that a person could be a good parent.

This increased their likelihood of finding a mate and producing offspring. Thus the link between altruism and sexual selection was established.

Altruism, when broadly practised, is also a very canny way of making life easier.

Not only does being nice and helpful make you happier and saner - it also reduces the amount of work you have to do.

A recent study of common etiquette found that acts of courtesy may have a practical, shared motivation. If you hold the door for someone, or they hold it for you, it reduces work for those involved.

Writ large, it makes life easier for everyone.

So there you have it. Altruism will make you happier, help you find a partner, and reduce the amount of work you have to do.

This article was published on Thu 25 August 2011

Image © photocreo - Fotolia.com

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