If you’ve ever served Thanksgiving dinner at a shelter, rung the bell for the Salvation Army, laced up your sneakers for a charity run/walk, or donated to a favorite nonprofit, you probably recall a moment of feeling like you’d done something good. Social scientists call that feeling of satisfaction the “helper’s high.”
It’s good for your body, toosays Stephen G. Post, PhD, author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping. “We have begun to discover that there is something going on, physiologically, in this process of helping others that makes people not only feel happier but also report greater health,” Post says.
As far back as 1988, an analysis of 1,700 female volunteers found that 68% said they felt a sense of calm after volunteering, akin to what they got from exercise. Decades later, studies used MRI image scans to track brain activity to explain why. In one small study of 19 people, merely cutting a check to charity lit up the brain’s mesolimbic reward system, sending feel-good chemicals in the body. When that generosity is practiced face-to-face, levels of oxytocin (the calming hormone released when a mother nurses her baby) and pain-killing endorphins also rise, Post says.
When we shift our minds away from our own troubles to focus on others’ needs, levels of stress hormones like cortisol fall. One study tracked 1,654 older adults over 4 years. During that time, those who volunteered at least 200 hours per year were 40% less likely to get high blood pressure than non-volunteers.
An evolutionary reason may partly explain why our reward centers light up when we help someone else. Working in a team, Post says, could have helped us survive as a species.
How to Choose a Volunteer Activity
You’d love to help out. But with so many great organizations and causes, how do you get started?
Look for opportunities that are meaningful for you and fit your interests and personality. Would you like to use your job skills? Would you prefer to do something active and outdoors, like cleaning up a park or helping build a trail, or a quieter indoor activity such as helping with a literacy organization? Would you rather volunteer with a big group of people or focus on smaller projects?
Also, consider your schedule. You can decide if you want to volunteer on a regular basis or just now and then.
These are the best ways to get the most out of volunteering, according to Post:
Help others dealing with something you’ve faced yourself. Studies show people recovering from alcohol use disorders are more likely to stay sober when they help others in recovery from problem drinking. Likewise, some people with chronic pain reported less pain when, as a trained volunteer, they helped someone with a similar condition.
Do what you’re good at. When volunteers feel like they’re just in the way, the experience can backfire and boost their stress. Choose a volunteer opportunity where you can make a real contribution.
Mean it. Those who contribute to organizations they’re passionate about tend to see stronger physical responses. “Motivation matters,” Post says. “When people are genuinely altruistic in their actions, they have a better response.”