People who exercise vigorously often describe feeling high during a workout — and a sense of calmness and freedom from stress afterward. Research reveals that these same emotional and physical changes can be produced with activity requiring much less exertion — helping others.
According to a 1998 article in Psychology Today, an analysis of the experiences of more than 1,700 women highlights these surprising effects. In many cases, this “helper’s calm” was linked to relief from stress-related disorders such as headaches, voice loss and even pain accompanying lupus and multiple sclerosis.
The increased strength and highs may result from the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain-reducing chemicals. Psychologist Jaak Panksepp of Bowling Green State University has been studying social and emotional processes in laboratory animals with a special emphasis on altruism. From his and other experiments, he concludes: “It is just about proven that it is our own natural opiates, the endorphins, that produce the good feelings that arise during social contact with others.”
Following the helping, many of the women reported experiencing a greater calmness and enhanced self-worth. One elderly woman wrote that doing something nice for someone actually snapped her out of periods of depression. Another reported more self-esteem after volunteer work.
The helper’s pleasurable physical sense and calmness is the opposite of the body’s agitated condition under stress, in which the heart pumps harder, breathing is faster, organ functions are interfered with, and the body is more sensitive to pain. It is not usually physical stress, such as that involved in exercise, but emotional stress that causes the adrenal gland to release its stress chemicals, the corticosteroids. These increase cholesterol levels, play a role in heart disease, raise blood sugar and depress immune function. Such evidence begins to suggest why men involved in community organizations tend to have less disease and longer lives than those who do not serve.
Interestingly, altruism’s pleasure does not appear to arise from donating money, no matter how important the cause, nor from volunteering without close personal contact. As one volunteer who makes recordings for the blind said, “They’re important. But I only feel that good high when I’m with others, like assisting the free-lunch program.”
Being in control is crucial to the health benefits of giving. If forced to help, for whatever reason, you may not benefit.
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