How Helping Others Can Improve Your Life, Too

Giving back can trigger endorphins in your brain and give you a sense of purpose.

When we think about self-care, we focus on we can do for our own health and happiness. It’s self-care after all — emphasis on the self.

Maybe to you that means dropping into a yoga class or ordering takeout and binge-watching your favorite TV show — something you do by yourself, for yourself.

But one very effective, yet often overlooked, form of self-care is giving back. Yes, you’re technically doing something for somebody else. But that, in turn, can drastically improve the quality of your own life.

If you’re thinking “But isn’t it kinda selfish to give back only to improve my own life,” just hear me out. While you probably don’t want to go into every opportunity focused on what you’ll get out of it, it’s not selfish to love that being generous to others gives you a warm, fuzzy glow.

Here’s how and why helping others is an amazing way to care for yourself, too.

It triggers endorphins

Research has shown that volunteering and giving back can be incredibly rewarding. Being altruistic, and expecting nothing in return, activates the brain’s pleasure centers.

An illustration of a hand reaching out to a sad woman. Rewire PBS Living Helping OthersCredit: Adobe
Giving back doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Something as simple as reaching out to a friend who’s struggling can help you feel better about yourself, too.

When we give, the brain releases the same type of endorphins and pleasurable sensations that we get through eating, exercising and even engaging in sexual intimacy, according to Mayra Mendez, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.

“The feelings elicited are pleasurable and ultimately associated with increased satisfaction and contentment with life,” Mendez said.

Aside from just making us feel good, those positive chemicals can improve our health. They’ve been linked to muscle relaxation, a stronger immune system, lower stress levels and increased energy. They can also help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.

It gives us purpose

Altruism can also provide you with a sense of purpose and meaning.

“It allows a person to expand their focus beyond their own needs and be connected to issues they may not think about on a regular basis,” said Jessy Warner-Cohen, a senior psychologist with Northwell Health in Lake Success, New York.

There’s a ton of evidence suggesting that people who are more altruistic generally have a greater sense of purpose in life.

While researchers are still working to unpack why, exactly, helping others boosts people’s sense of a meaningful life, it seems to all boil down to the fact that giving back strengthens our relationships and makes us feel more connected to other people — which brings us to our next point.

It fosters community

Volunteering in and of itself is a social activity, says Warner-Cohen. Meeting and working with other people toward a common, positive goal is a powerful force that helps people bond and become close. It lets us feel connected to others and to a community.

“Social support is important in overall health and often volunteering expands the scope of one’s social circles,” she said.

Having strong social connections has been shown to improve our happiness. Being social also boosts our immune system, improves your memory, and nourishes your mental health. It can even extend your life span.

It’s not selfish

Like I said earlier, you’re not a selfish person if you like how volunteering makes you feel. That said, there should be some sort of balance between the needs of others and your own needs, says Warner-Cohen.

For example, some people can give and give and give, then totally burn out. Others can get too wrapped up in how giving is impacting their own needs, which detracts from the experience.

Social media can, unfortunately, play into this. If you’re doing charity or going on a volunteer trip so you can post about it on Instagram, you probably aren’t approaching it in the best way and it might be time to reassess your motives.

“It’s good to feel good about giving back — as long as it does not potentially negatively affect those to whom you are giving,” Warner-Cohen said.

[ICYMI: What Does Philanthropy Look Like When You’re Broke?]

How to give back

There is no right or wrong way to start helping others, and there are thousands of ways to share your time, words and talents.

Giving back doesn’t need to be all about donating money, Mendez said.

“Some of the most rewarding and gratifying giving back experiences are about extending a hand to others, spontaneously reacting to someone in need without hesitation and with an open heart, or simply responding to someone with a smile and gentle words,” she said.

Consider donating your time to a cause — like the Special Olympics, Habitat for Humanity or a disaster relief effort.

Food banks are often looking for volunteers, as are nursing homes, animal shelters and hospitals. You can also try to figure out a way to capitalize on your own unique skills and interests to benefit the greater good.

The simplest act of generosity can go a long way for a lot of people, yourself included.

“The healing effects of human connection have reciprocal pleasure outcomes for the giver and the receiver of the interaction,” Mendez said.

Julia Ries

Julia Ries is a writer based in Los Angeles. When she’s not writing, there’s a good chance she’s doing yoga, walking her dog or doing yoga with her dog. Get to know her at www.juliaries.com.