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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.

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