Scientists have long known that we, all human beings, have an altruism center built into our brains. This is the part of the brain that springs to action when we see a child in imminent danger and then immediately act to protect them. Despite what goes on in our modern-day world - war, murder, genocide - it has always been in our best interest, as social animals, to care for, protect, and serve one another. Making a difference makes us feel good - it's a fact. The proof, despite what seems like a mountain of evidence to prove otherwise, lies in decades of research done by neuroscientists, researchers, and, perhaps more importantly, centuries of normal human beings acting selflessly and living purposeful and joy-filled lives as a result.
These are the 4 science-backed ways making a difference makes you happier (and healthier.)
THE LOVE CHEMICAL
Scientists have learned that when you intentionally help others, your brain releases a neurochemical called oxytocin. Oxytocin is commonly referred to as the "love chemical" or "tranquility hormone", as it produces feelings of warmth, love, intimacy, and connection. Oxytocin immediately boosts your mood, decreases fear, and increases your sense of trust and empathy. And not only does oxytocin have a profound effect on your brain, it has a profound effect on your body - it's a powerful anti-inflammatory, reduces pain, lowers blood pressure, and counteracts the negative effects of cortisol (the stress hormone.)
That release of oxytocin also stimulates the 'desire and reward' center in our brain, producing a rush of pleasure. In other words, intentionally helping or serving another person produces the same effect in your brain as cocaine.
MORE FEEL-GOOD CHEMICALS
When your oxytocin levels are boosted, so too are the feel-good chemicals in your brain - serotonin and dopamine. These three together are used to measure happiness and emotional well-being - simply put, when all three are present at healthy, balanced levels, the happier and healthier you are.
Like oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine have profound mental and physical benefits as well. Serotonin is connected to everything from sleep, digestion, and appetite to memory and learning, while dopamine is connected to arousal and motivation.
The 'mirror neurons' in the human brain fire when we observe another person's emotions, facial expressions, or actions. This is why we yawn when we witness another person yawn, or why we can't help but laugh when we see someone else laugh. It's in our biology to imitate the behaviors of others. When we help others and receive the neurochemical rewards of doing so, we're more likely to smile, to emit warm, positive feelings, and to treat ourselves and others kindly. This positive behavior ripples outward and affects everyone around us, by activating their mirror neurons and then the next person's and so on.
EMPATHY & SOCIAL CONNECTEDNESS
Studies have shown that acts of empathy lead to greater feelings of social connectedness. As we feel more socially connected, we experience greater self-esteem, decreased feelings of loneliness, and greater overall well-being. This can even improve your longevity so that you not only live happier, but you also live longer. Whether you give by volunteering, donating to charities, or by supporting companies that give back - the results are the same. Showing greater concern for your fellow human beings through acts of empathy enhances your feeling of connection and improves your self-esteem, proving once and for all, that when we give, even indirectly, we receive so much more in return.