Are we born generous, or selfish? Some may argue we have a natural survival instinct, but a recent study showed we are wired to be generous from a very young age, writes Lyn Beasy.*
Between the stress of everyday life and insurmountable responsibilities, being generous is often the last thing on our minds. But did you know that giving to others makes you happier? A recent study by the University of British Columbia showed that pro-social behaviour in toddlers led to greater happiness.
The researchers found that children were happier when they were giving a treat to others than when receiving treats themselves.
In fact there are many more benefits to helping others than just gaining happiness. Researchers discovered that it can reduce stress and improve mood disorders, such as depression. Helping others also gives us a better perspective on our own situation.
The term ‘First World problems’ originates from our tendency to complain about the trivial things in our life, such as a poorly made latté, missing a car space or having limited internet access. Yet by helping people we can develop better empathy and compassion and appreciate the things we do have.
From a neurobiological level, researchers also know that providing social support to others may benefit the giver more than the receiver by activating areas of the brain that are associated with trust, connection and pleasure. Using brain imaging, the researchers were able to identify specific brain benefits of giving social support to others.
While having someone to support you is bene-ficial, there are even greater benefits when helping others. In one study, people who supported others during a stressful task had less activity in the amygdala (part of the brain) where a stress response is generated, and other areas that are considered reward centres were activated instead.
This suggests that when we act altruistically towards others, we not only help them but help ourselves too. It adds to emerging literature that giving support can benefit health.
Doing random acts of kindness or more regular volunteering will have added health benefits for you. Simple ways can give you a buzz, too, such as giving up your seat on the bus, offering to make a coffee for a colleague, or donating to a worthwhile cause.
Volunteering as little as a few hours a month can have significant health benefits and numerous studies have shown an improvement on stress and cardiovascular health in volunteers. It can also provide a sense of purpose and identity, particularly for those no longer in the workforce.
Former US president Barack Obama said: ‘The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.’
Helping others is one way to spread hope and joy—and it will even benefit your health.
*Lyn Beasy is a psychologist at the Caringbah Wellbeing Clinic, in NSW.