by Arnold R. Grahl
Your parents told you to be nice to people. Guess what? They were right. Here’s why.
Doing good doesn’t only benefit other people. It helps us, too.
Studies show that helping others boosts serotonin, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel satisfied. Another benefit to feeling rewarded when we do good: It lowers our stress levels. Who couldn’t use that right now?
Facing the COVID-19 pandemic, people everywhere are feeling anxious about their health, their families, their jobs, and their futures.
“When we are all feeling lower than we are used to feeling, with some levels of situational depression, we all need a boost,” says psychologist Mary Berge, a member of the Rotary Club of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, USA, who has led discussions with many Rotary clubs about coping during the pandemic.
“There has been a lot of research that when we are helping others, or when we are doing something for someone else, our reward centers light up in the brain and our stress levels go down as cortisol is released.”
It feels good to do good
In a 2016 study, researchers asked participants about scenarios in which they either gave or received support. The study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, found that MRI tests showed only the instances of giving correlated to reduced stress and enhanced activity in the brain’s reward centers — which suggests that giving support ultimately had greater mental benefits than receiving it.
Many studies have established a connection between volunteering and improved health. In the brain, acts of kindness release powerful chemicals like oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine, elevating our mood, increasing reward stimuli, and reducing stress. Compassion evokes lower heart rates and reduces coronary distress. Oxytocin is also connected to social bonding, so as it is released, the ties that bind us are strengthened.
Researchers at Oslo Metropolitan University in Norway and the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany explored the relationship between volunteering and well-being in 12 European countries, noting the relative lack of such studies outside the U.S. Their 2018 analysis found that people who are or have been volunteers report greater well-being than people who have not. found that people who are or have been volunteers report greater well-being than people who have not.
And in a 2013 Canadian study posted by the National Library of Medicine, researchers looked at the effect on the cardiovascular health of adolescents who do volunteer work. The study confirmed that helping people reduced the volunteers’ body mass index and other cardiovascular risk factors.
Coping during the pandemic
Berge, a training leader for Rotary, saw anxiety rising among her patients because of the pandemic and developed the Staying Sane During COVID-19 presentation. She has delivered the talk by videoconference more than 70 times, mostly at Rotary-related events.
“Rotarians in particular have a high need for being compassionate,” says Berge. “In my Zoom meetings, I hear people say, ‘What can we do to help?’ They are desperate to get that feel-good feeling again. I think they see that in doing these things, it relieves our own stress, sadness, anxiety, and irritability.”
Rotary member Jenny Stotts, a social worker, child advocate, and trauma specialist, has written about how we can increase our resiliency, adapt to adversity during the pandemic, and emerge stronger.
Rotarians in particular have a high need for being compassionate. They are desperate to get that feel-good feeling again.
— psychologist Mary Berge
“When we express meaningful and intentional gratitude or engage in planned acts of kindness, we experience the benefits of serotonin and dopamine, which are two neurotransmitters responsible for us feeling pleasure or joy,” says Stotts, a member of the Rotary Club of Athens Sunrise, Ohio, USA. “Not only do we benefit others from this activity, but it has a way of recharging our batteries.”
Stotts notes that when we do acts of good repeatedly, something interesting happens in our brains. “If we engage in a regular daily practice of kindness and gratitude, we are essentially carving out pathways within our brain that make us healthier and a little more emotionally stable.”
Because of all this, Stotts tells her staff and clients, “You deserve to be your kindest self.”
Rotary members may not realize the significant role they can play in changing how people think, Stotts says.
“When we, as leaders in our community, adapt a way of thinking — that level of intentional gratitude and intentional kindness — we have a way of setting a really good example,” she says. “I think it is a calming and stabilizing force. We can set that tone for our entire club and for our communities.”
Many Rotary, Rotaract, and Interact clubs are setting that tone and finding creative ways to be kind to their neighbors. Here are just a few of them: