Ever heard of the helper’s high? Did you wonder if it’s as legitimate as it sounds? We’re here to share the research!
The Helper’s High
“Helper’s high” is the name given to that feeling of well-being that follows an opportunity to extend an act of kindness, donate money to a charitable cause, or volunteer in a meaningful setting. After volunteering, have you ever found yourself thinking, “Wow, I got more out of that than I gave!” That feeling is one version of the helper’s high. It’s part of human evolution. When we help or protect others, we contribute to keeping the human species alive.
How Endorphins Help Keep Us Alive
Studies show that the chemicals released when volunteering are similar to the chemicals released during a yoga high, runner’s high, or sexual activity. These activities, as enjoyable as they can be for many people, are actually stressors that require the body to extend beyond what the status quo typically requires of us. When we experience stressors, the body releases pain-relieving endorphins to give us the strength we need to keep going – and ultimately to protect and expand the human species. Imagine the skills and activities that kept early humans alive. Was it sitting around the fire? Lounging by the pond? No. It was the ability to run fast and far (to escape danger or hunt food), maintain healthy tendons and ligaments (to build, plant, and tend), and have babies. More here!
The Chemicals Released While Helping
Another way to describe the areas of the brain that release “pain-relieving endorphins” is as the brain’s pleasure centers. Endorphins are a group of opiate proteins, meaning they affect the brain like morphine. A study at the National Institute of Health showed that when people thought about giving money to a charity, the areas of the brain associated with pleasure lit up in the same way they light up when people thought about food or sex. A similar study at Emory University showed that helping others lit up the pleasure and reward part of one’s brain. More here! And here!
A Pathway to Personal Joy
Essentially, what we’re finding is that helping others triggers the brain’s pleasure centers and releases endorphins, the body’s natural morphine. Similar to running, yoga, and sex, helping others helps keep the human species alive. Neuroscience also demonstrates that giving and volunteering release oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine. These hormones have the effect of boosting our mood and blocking cortisol, which is known as the stress hormone. “Neuroscience has demonstrated that giving is a powerful pathway for creating more personal joy.” More here!
Ready for More?
For all of the above, here are some additional articles, research referenced within, as well as academic research papers. Each include connections to the helper’s high and the brain’s response to pro-social behavior. The first two are a great place to start!:
Empathy as a driver of prosocial behaviour: highly conserved neurobehavioural mechanisms across species “In this paper, we integrate the perspectives of evolution, animal behaviour, developmental psychology, and social and clinical neuroscience to elucidate our understanding of the proximate mechanisms underlying empathy. We focus, in particular, on processing of signals of distress and need, and their relation to prosocial behaviour.”
Human fronto–mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation “The importance of these fronto–limbic networks for human altruism concurs with their key roles in more basic social and motivational mechanisms. The mesolimbic system regulates overall reward reinforcement and prediction and is activated by a host of stimuli, including food, sex, drugs, and money.”
The Selfless Mind: How Prefrontal Involvement in Mentalizing With Similar And Dissimilar Others Shapes Empathy And Prosocial Behavior “Engaging in this other-enhancement process thus seems to help people to overcome a self-other distinction that would otherwise impede prosocial responses. The propensity to engage in this process furthermore seems more pronounced in people high in dispositional empathic concern and in overall subjective empathic responses during the Empathy Task.”
The Significance of Task Significance: Job Performance Effects, Relational Mechanisms, and Boundary Conditions This research discovered that fundraising callers who received a task significance intervention increased their levels of job performance relative to callers in two other conditions and to their own prior performance.
Human fronto–mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donations “In this article, we use functional magnetic resonance imaging while participants anonymously donated to or opposed real charitable organizations related to major societal causes. We show that the mesolimbic reward system is engaged by donations in the same way as when monetary rewards are obtained.”
The ‘helper’s high’ could help you live a longer, healthier life. “In the last few years, researchers have looked at the so-called helper’s high and its effects on the human body. Scientists are searching to understand just how altruism — the wish to perform good deeds — affects our health, even our longevity.”
The Helper’s High “The concept of the “helper’s high” arose in the 1980s, and has been confirmed in various studies since then. It consists of positive emotions following selfless service to others. Greater health and increased longevity are associated with this psychological state. Generosity, selflessness, and an extended sense of self favor our ability to confront successfully the environmental challenges we face on our planet.” Also, a little more here.