Researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, working on a new collaborative project with the National Institute on Mental Health and the National Institute on Aging (Cognitive and Emotional Health Project: The Healthy Brain ) have discovered that there is a physiological basis for the warm glow that seems often to accompany altruistic giving. Nineteen subjects were each given $128 and told to donate it anonymously to any of a number of socially controversial causes, ranging from support for abortion rights to opposition to the death penalty. Subjects could accept or reject each charity, some of which would require more of their $128 pots than others. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) revealed that making a donation activated the donors’ brain reward centers, the mesolimbic pathways responsible for the dopamine-mediated euphoria associated with sex, money, food, and drugs (Moll et al. 2006).
We should not be surprised to learn that people feel good when they do good. Group selection theory in evolution shows that groups that are strong in internal altruism have a selective advantage over other groups (Sober and Wilson 1998). Thus, it makes evolutionary sense that helping behavior within groups would be connected with stimulating feelings of well-being. On the genetic level, it appears that altruism is associated with the dopamine D4 receptor (Bachner-Melman et al. 2005).
The psychological benefits of helping others may have been demonstrated first in the early 1980s. “Well-being” is characterized by feeling hopeful, happy, and good about oneself, as well as energetic and connected to others. In an early study that compared retirees over age 65 who volunteered with those who did not, volunteers scored significantly higher in life satisfaction and will to live, and had fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, and somatization (Hunter and Lin 1981). More recent studies confirm an association between altruistic activities and well-being and life satisfaction in older adults (Dulin and Hill 2003; Liang et al. 2001; Morrow-Howell et al. 2003). Midlarsky (1991) found five benefits to older adults who engage in altruistic behavior: enhanced social integration; distraction from the agent’s own problems; enhanced meaningfulness; increased perception of self-efficacy and competence; and improved mood and/or more physically active lifestyle. Midlarsky and Kahana (1994) associated adult altruism—that is, voluntary behavior that is “motivated by concern for the welfare of the other, rather than by anticipation of rewards” (p. 11)—with improved morale and self-esteem, positive affect, and well-being. The mental health benefits of giving in the form of volunteerism—a wider form of giving than charitable donation—include fewer depressive symptoms (Musick and Wilson 2003) and greater happiness and well-being (Krueger et al. 2001).
In his book The Happiness Hypothesis (2006), Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, discusses great ancient ideas about human flour-ishing—that is, what makes for a happy and meaningful human life. Haidt explains how the human system of attachment has evolved and how important it is to our successful development, emphasizing Émile Durkheim’s idea that the ties, bonds, and obligations of our lives are actually mentally and physically good for us. Helping others provides more benefits than receiving help, and strong social relationships increase immunity, speed healing, and reduce the risks of depression. It makes sense that volunteering appears to be most beneficial to the elderly—both because of the increased social isolation of this life stage, and because giving back fits particularly well into the end-of-life story (Haidt 2006).
In a literature review on the relationship between volunteering and psychological health, “Doing Well by Doing Good: Benefits for the Benefactor” (2003), Jane Piliavin narrows the review by including only studies of community service, defined as “taking actions, carried out within an institutional framework, that potentially provide some service to one or more other people or to the community at large” (p. 227). The studies are organized by the life-cycle stage of the participants (e.g., youth, adult, and elderly), reflecting the belief that volunteering plays different roles, and therefore has different effects, depending on the age of the volunteer. Most studies have focused on the youth stage, when the first opportunities to volunteer arise, and the elderly stage, when volunteering may replace important family and work roles as a source of identity and self-esteem. After reviewing numerous studies of adolescents and college students, Piliavin concludes that there is “considerable evidence that community service has positive impacts on youth” (p. 235). The studies have shown decreased delinquency and other problem behaviors, as well as positive impacts on social values and academic achievements. Studies on service learning—“academic experiences in which students engage both in social action and in reflection on their experiences in performing that action” (p. 236)—have revealed positive effects on self-esteem, confidence, and self-efficacy, particularly for at-risk students. The comparatively vast literature on volunteering in elderly populations has perhaps contributed the most to the idea that doing good is good for you. Piliavin reviewed studies investigating impacts on mental health, morbidity, and mortality and concluded that “there appears to be a strong and consistent effect, such that the more an elderly person volunteers, the higher is his or her life satisfaction … similarly, some volunteering enhances physical health and even can stave off death” (p. 241).
SEE ALSO Altruism; Cooperation; Dopamine; Evolutionary Psychology; Happiness; Hope; Neuroscience
Bachner-Melman, Rachel, I. Gritsenko, L. Nemanov, et al. 2005. Dopaminergic Polymorphisms Associated with Self-Report Measures of Human Altruism: A Fresh Phenotype for the Dopamine D4 Receptor. Molecular Psychiatry 10: 333–335.
Dulin, P., and R. Hill. 2003. Relationships between Altruistic Activity and Positive and Negative Affect among Low-Income Older Adult Service Providers. Aging and Mental Health 7 (4): 294–299.
Haidt, Jonathan. 2006. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Hunter, Kathleen I., and Margaret W. Linn. 1980–1981. Psychosocial Differences between Elderly Volunteers and Non-Volunteers. International Journal of Aging and Human Development 12 (3): 205–213.
Liang, Jersey, Neal M. Krause, and Joan M. Bennett. 2001. Social Exchange and Well-Being: Is Giving Better Than Receiving? Psychology and Aging 16 (3): 511–523.
Midlarsky, Elizabeth. 1991. Helping as Coping. Prosocial Behavior: Review of Personality and Social Psychology 12: 238–264.
Midlarsky, Elizabeth, and Eva Kahana. 1994. Altruism in Later Life. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Moll, Jorge, Frank Krueger, Roland Zahn, et al. 2006. Human Fronto-Mesolimbic Networks Guide Decisions about Charitable Donation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103 (42): 15623–15628.
Morrow-Howell, Nancy, Jim Hinterlong, Philip A. Rozario, and Fengyan Tang. 2003. Effects of Volunteering on the Well-Being of Older Adults. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 58B (3): S137-145.
Piliavin, Jane Allyn. 2003. Doing Well by Doing Good: Benefits for the Benefactor. In Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived, eds. Corey L. M. Keyes and Jonathan Haidt, 227–247. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Sober, Elliott, and David Sloan Wilson. 1998. Unto Others: The Evolution of Unselfish Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Stephen G. Post