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Can helping others help make me happy?

Dr. Ronald Siegel
Psychology Specialist

Several studies have demonstrated the link between helping others and happiness. In a study published in Social Science and Medicine, researchers from the London School of Economics examined the relationship between volunteering and measures of happiness in a large group of adults in the United States. Their straightforward finding: the more people volunteered, the happier they were. Compared with people who never volunteered, the chance of being "very happy" rose 7% for those volunteering monthly, 12% for those volunteering every two to four weeks, and 16% for those volunteering weekly. Giving time to religious organizations had the greatest impact. You might think that a 16% increase in the number of people feeling happy seems small, but in this study, volunteering increased the probability of being very happy as much as did having an income of $75,000 to $100,000 compared with an income of $20,000.

Time is a precious resource, and the ways you spend it can have a big impact on your well-being. But research has also shown that how people spend their money makes a difference. In a study from the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School, published in Science, researchers measured how happy 16 employees reported feeling one month before and six to eight weeks after receiving their profit-sharing bonus, which ranged from about $3,000 to $8,000. Employees who spent a greater proportion of their bonus on others or made charitable donations with it reported greater happiness than employees who spent more of the bonus on themselves—regardless of the actual size of the bonus.

In a second study, the researchers asked 46 participants to rate their happiness in the morning. Each participant then received an envelope containing either $5 or $20, and was instructed to spend the money by 5 p.m. Half of the participants were assigned to spend the money on themselves, the other half to buy something for another person or donate the money to charity. Again, participants who spent the money on others reported feeling happier at the end of the day than those who spent it on themselves. The actual amount they spent didn't matter: even $5 was enough to make people feel happier.

Helping others increases happiness and health. Giving to others actually feels good, and there may be a biological basis for the increase in happiness and health that comes from generous behavior.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation were involved in a study that showed the brain's pleasure centers became activated when people donated money to charity. Researchers took advantage of a brain imaging technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which shows when specific regions of the brain are activated. The higher brain response to voluntary giving might correspond to the “warm glow” people reportedly experience when they’ve donated money to a good cause.

Trinity Health is a Catholic health care organization that acts in accordance with the Catholic tradition and does not condone or support all practices covered in this site. In case of emergency call 911. This site is educational and not a substitute for professional medical advice, always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.