How to Help Yourself by Helping Others
Learn about the benefits of helping others and ways in which we can contribute to the welfare of our fellow humans.
The human desire to help others is deeply rooted in our neurobiology (Hurlemann & Marsh, 2016). In fact, neuroscience research has shown that helping others activates the “reward” area of our brains (Moll et al., 2006). In other words, when we do something kind for other people, it feels good.
Helping others can be as simple as holding a door for someone or as extraordinary as donating a kidney. No matter how big or small the act, when we are kind and generous to each other, everyone benefits. Let’s take a closer look at the science behind helping others and some of the ways in which we can put more good into the world around us.
Researchers often define helping others as the intention or the effect of improving the welfare of another without the expectation of material rewards in return. This means that helping others can refer to well-intentioned behaviors that succeed in improving the well-being of another person as well as the well-intentioned behaviors that fall short of their goal. We can’t always be certain that the help we offer will produce the outcome we expect, but if our goal is to contribute positively to the welfare of our neighbors on planet Earth, it’s always worth a try.
The effects of helping others on both the giver and the recipient have been a popular topic of research for decades. There are now numerous studies that demonstrate the psychological benefits of helping others. The body of research is far too vast to describe it all, but here are a few examples.
One study conducted in the ’90s trained individuals with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) to support others with MS through active listening, compassion, and non-directive support (Schwartz & Sendor, 1999). Non-directive support is a therapeutic technique in which the supporter helps the person they are supporting explore their feelings and does not give advice. Both supporters and those being supported completed questionnaires that measured their subjective quality of life 3 times over the course of 2 years. The researchers found that the people providing support actually reported greater improvements in their quality of life over the 2 years of the study than those receiving support.
A more recent study found that individuals who were donating blood reported that the blood drawing procedure was less painful than individuals who were having blood drawn for personal medical purposes (Wang et al., 2020).
The World Happiness Report, a yearly publication that uses survey data gathered from around the globe to assess well-being and the factors related to it, reported that donating money to charity predicted greater life satisfaction in nearly all countries around the world (Aknin et al., 2019).
How to Help Others
There are as many ways to help people as there are people to help, but here is a list of a few suggestions for how you can help others.
Random acts of kindness
Donating (food, blood, money, clothes, etc.)
Letting people know they are appreciated
Mentoring or teaching
Offering physical comfort (like a hug)
Lending your voice to someone who is being ignored
Giving advice when you can
The ways in which we can help others are limitless. Whether we donate unwanted clothing, volunteer at a senior center, or spend our lives providing humanitarian aid to refugees, our acts of kindness make a difference in the lives of others as well as our own lives.
Aknin, L. B., Whillans, A. V., Norton, M. I., & Dunn, E. W. (2019). Happiness and prosocial behavior: An evaluation of the evidence. World Happiness Report 2019, 67-86.
Hurlemann, R., & Marsh, N. (2016). New insights into the neuroscience of human altruism. Der Nervenarzt, 87(11), 1131-1135.
Moll, J., Krueger, F., Zahn, R., Pardini, M., de Oliveira-Souza, R., & Grafman, J. (2006). Human fronto–mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(42), 15623-15628.
Schwartz, C. E., & Sendor, R. M. (1999). Helping others helps oneself: response shift effects in peer support. Social science & medicine, 48(11), 1563-1575.
Wang, Y., Ge, J., Zhang, H., Wang, H., & Xie, X. (2020). Altruistic behaviors relieve physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(2), 950-958.