The Science of Good Deeds
The 'helper's high' could help you live a longer, healthier life.
The Science of Altruism continued...
Altruistic emotions -- the "helper's high" -- seem to gain dominance
over the stress response, Post explains. The actual physiological responses of
the helper's high have not yet been scientifically studied. However, a few
small studies point to lowered stress response and improved immunity (higher
levels of protective antibodies) when one is feeling empathy and love.
In one study, older adults who volunteered to give massage to infants had
lowered stress hormones. In another study, students were simply asked to watch
a film of Mother Teresa's work with the poor in Calcutta. They had significant
increases in protective antibodies associated with improved immunity -- and
antibody levels remained high for an hour afterward. Students who watched a
more neutral film didn't have changes in antibody levels. "Thus, 'dwelling
on love' strengthened the immune system," writes Post.
Compassion in the Brain
There's evidence in brain studies of a "compassion-altruism axis,"
Post tells WebMD. Utilizing functional MRI scans, scientists have identified
specific regions of the brain that are very active during deeply empathic and
compassionate emotions, he explains. A new mother's brain -- specifically, the
prefrontal lobe -- becomes very active when she looks at a picture of her own
baby, compared to other babies' pictures.
"This is extremely important," Post says. "This is the
care-and-connection part of the brain. It is a very different part of the brain
than is active with romantic love. These brain studies show this profound state
of joy and delight that comes from giving to others. It doesn't come from any
dry action -- where the act is out of duty in the narrowest sense, like writing
a check for a good cause. It comes from working to cultivate a generous quality
-- from interacting with people. There is the smile, the tone in the voice, the
touch on the shoulder. We're talking about altruistic love."
Brain chemicals also enter into this picture of altruism. A recent study has
identified high levels of the "bonding" hormone oxytocin in people who
are very generous toward others. Oxytocin is the hormone best known for its
role in preparing mothers for motherhood. Studies have also shown that this
hormone helps both men and women establish trusting relationships.