Mother Teresa may get a lot of credit for being saintly in her commitment to helping others in a selfless manner but when you look at her psychology from a scientific perspective… she was probably just a junkie.
Okay, so that’s a little extreme but it got your attention, right?
While anyone who dedicates their life to helping others should be commended for their efforts (and Mother Teresa definitely wasn’t ‘just a junkie’), there is indeed a psychological component here that can help to explain their motivations and that might shed some light on why anyone chooses to live a purely altruistic life. This explanation is what we know as the ‘helper’s high’ but what exactly does it describe?
The Psychology of Altruism
Whenever you do something selfless for someone – whether that’s giving your partner a massage or donating money to charity – the act stimulates the release of neurochemicals in your brain’s reward centers (1).
In fact, studies show that even just the anticipation of doing something good triggers the release of these chemicals. And if you often engage in altruistic behavior, then this can lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol in the long-term.
People who are generous in nature also have higher levels of oxytocin (2). This is the neurochemical that is most associated with feelings of love as well as social bonding – and the relationship between levels of oxytocin and generosity is likely two-way.
Altruism and Evolution
The helper’s high as an explanation for generous and altruistic behavior definitely fits within an evolutionary model of human behavior.
For starters, the neurochemistry associated with the helper’s high not only creates the feeling of reward but also helps to encourage prosocial behavior and bonding. In other words, our enjoyment of helping others may well be key to the facilitation of our social groups. In short, helping others feels good, so we do it more often which in turn helps us to be accepted by social groups. These social groups then help each other and the result is mutually ensured survival.
So next time you’re feeling low, consider donating some money to charity, giving your friend a massage or just telling someone you care. The result will be the release of neurotransmitters that might instantly help you to feel better.