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The Science Behind Giving Back

An integrative medicine specialist discusses how doing good impacts the brain and body.

Why does it feel good when we do good?

Part of “getting into the holiday spirit,” for many people, involves giving back and participating in charitable efforts. If you’ve ever donated or volunteered your time, you’ve likely experienced feelings of gratitude or fulfillment – but science supports that doing good might provide more for us than just a fleeting moment of happiness.

Various studies have pointed to significant emotional and physical benefits associated with the act of giving. The Cleveland Clinic notes these health benefits may include lower blood pressure; increased self-esteem; less depression; lower stress levels; longer life; and greater happiness.

To better understand what happens in the brain when we spread positivity, and how it trickles out to the rest of the body, we spoke with Dr. Andrew Newberg, Neuroscientist and Research Director of the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health.

Tapping Into Positive Emotions

While we’re still working to figure out how this all works, says Dr. Newberg, it’s true that positive acts create responses in the brain within a “feel-good network.” Areas of the limbic system, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus, are the main emotional centers of the brain that “light up” or activate in response to positive and negative actions.

“When people are altruistic and generous, it creates a response in the brain that taps into positive emotions,” explains Dr. Newberg. “The brain also produces and releases neurotransmitters and hormones, such as dopamine and oxytocin, that help us feel happiness and pleasure.”

How We ‘Mirror’ What We See

Other systems in the brain are designed to be social – to read and react to others’ expressions, continues Dr. Newberg. Giving back anonymously may feel good, but it may feel even better to see someone’s reaction in person, because you can see their happiness. This provides feedback to the brain’s mirror neurons, thus making us reciprocate their positive response.

This can also happen even when a positive action isn’t directly being performed for us, adds Dr. Newberg. Think about the last time you may have “paid it forward.” Why did you do so? Did you feel obligated, or were you motivated to do something good, because you watched someone else do something good?

Helper’s High: An ‘Addiction’ to Doing Good

Dopamine is closely linked to pleasure and the brain’s expectations for rewards (the reward system); it’s also a significant factor in substance use disorder. As dopamine production reduces when sober, it intensifies cravings for the substance.

Similar cravings can even be experienced when it comes to good deeds. We’ve studied meditation and how it can sensitize the brain to neurotransmitters. Each time you have a release of dopamine or endorphins, it’s that much greater of a feeling, says Dr. Newberg.

“We also know that the more you use certain parts of the brain, the more ready they are to activate again,” said Dr. Newberg. “It’s like the old adage, ‘the neurons that fire together, wire together.’”

Stress Reduction & Other Benefits

Neurotransmitters can aid in stress reduction by decreasing the amount of reactivity that happens in the brain and boosting the parasympathetic nervous system.

Think of your “fight or flight” response, advises Dr. Newberg. “The parasympathetic system is what helps us calm down. The more often positive areas of the brain are activated, the less of a stress response we have – and the less cortisol and adrenaline we produce.”

As stress and anxiety levels lower, so does your blood pressure, heart rate, and consequently your risk for stroke and cardiovascular disease, and much more.

While cortisol is ordinarily anti-inflammatory, excess levels can actually suppress the immune system, explains Dr. Newberg. So, doing good and reducing stress can improve immune function.

Additionally, some studies, such as one done by the University of California-Berkeley, show that optimism and volunteerism are associated with a longer lifespan.

What Does It All Mean?

Giving is inherent for many people, and while we don’t know exactly why some are more “wired” to give than others, we know that there’s a world of benefits to reap, says Dr. Newberg. Theoretically, if you act this way long-term, it may strengthen your brain’s positive centers and grant you a healthier, longer life. But this is only some of the research that’s been done; there’s still much to be discovered.

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