On the outside, humans might look savage — especially if you turn on the evening news in 2020 — but on the inside, we can be some of the planet’s kindest and most compassionate creatures. There’s a reason for that, and like most things involving human behavior, it’s chemical.
Do you know that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when you do something nice for someone or lend them a hand, especially without expecting anything in return? That’s a reaction known as helper’s high. What is this phenomenon, and how does it affect your brain?
What Is Helper’s High?
Despite its name, a helper’s high doesn’t have anything to do with being intoxicated. Instead, this is just a colloquial term for the uplifted feeling you get after you do a good deed. Pay for the person behind you in the drive-thru or drop some change in a busker’s guitar case. The thrill you feel afterward is known as the helper’s high.
It isn’t merely a placebo effect. There is some science behind this euphoric feeling. Evolution has wired our brains to provide us with a positive chemical reward when we do something altruistic. Kindness to others nets you all sorts of feel-good chemicals, such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.
The helper’s high is the same positive response you get when you hug someone you love, eat a candy bar or do anything else that triggers the brain’s reward pathways. Essentially, our brain chemicals make us more inclined to do nice things for other people.
Plus, once you start experiencing this helper’s high, your brain starts to anticipate these events, so you try to do them more. This anticipation further increases the chemical reward your brain delivers after you offer a helping hand to someone in need.
The Benefits of Helping Out
Beyond the positive feeling you get after being kind and selfless, some physical and mental benefits accompany this helper’s high. Research has found experiencing that natural high helps lower your body’s stress levels. In turn, this decreased stress can reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems, while helping strengthen your immune system. Over time, this positive experience can even increase your life expectancy.
Stress reduction can improve your mental health, too. It can help reduce the negatives that accompany pressure, making it easier to face unavoidable stressors in your life. It can also help reduce the impact of things like anxiety and depression — conditions caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. The additional serotonin and dopamine you receive as part of the helper’s high might not be a cure for mental illness, but it can somewhat take the edge off.
That satisfying feeling you get from helping others is a reward in and of itself, but it’s beneficial to know that you can secure some tangible health benefits by lifting others up.
The Downside of Altruism
Helping others is a noble calling, but it’s not for everyone. If you’re already feeling overwhelmed, lending that helping hand can add even more stress to your plate. Even if you have the best of intentions, donating $5 to someone’s GoFundMe if you don’t have any money to spare will leave you feeling more stressed, instead of less.
Burnout is also common, especially among volunteers and caregivers. People who spend all their time helping others often forget to take care of themselves, leading to compassion fatigue. The most straightforward way to avoid these issues is to prioritize self-care. As many self-care advocates have stated this year, you can’t pour from an empty cup. In other words, it’s impossible to help others if you’re stretched thin and don’t carve out time to take care of yourself.
Thanks to the internet and the perpetual connection of the modern world, you’ll have FOMO when you try to be optimistic. FOMO, or the fear of missing out, can leave you feeling like you need to contribute to whatever on-trend cause is making the rounds, because you’ll fall behind if you don’t. It’s only internet-based peer pressure, but you might find yourself pushed into helping someone else at the expense of taking care of yourself.
If you decide to offer some help, whether it’s in person or donating to a GoFundMe circulating on social media, make sure you’re in the right position to do so.
Feel Free to Offer a Helping Hand
Don’t be shy about providing a helping hand if you have the means to do so. You also don’t have to let the quest to help out negatively affect your life. Take a close look at your situation before you start chasing that helper’s high. Yes, helping others can be a noble calling, but only if you take care of yourself first.