Why does helping others feel so good?

Getting involved in activities that help other people, communities or our environment gives us that lovely fuzzy-and-warm-inside feeling. Helping a friend out, coaching kids’ football, clearing plastic off a beach, campaigning to right a wrong or just helping someone across the road, makes us feel better about ourselves, more connected to others and well – just happy. 

The #iwill campaign wants to make getting involved in social action the norm for young people under 20. So, what would be the benefits of changing your behaviour – doing something (or doing more things) for others, taking social action, and making a positive difference?

As humans, one of our most basic needs is to feel connected to other humans. Around 6 million years’ worth of evolution as a social species means our brains are wired to connect with others. We need to connect to other humans to grow, learn, love and to experience physical and psychological wellbeing. Humans evolved to live in hunter-gather groups of about 150 – our survival was dependent on us being part of the group. Which is why being left out, bullied, and feeling different can be so distressing for us humans now, even though these difficulties aren’t usually life threatening in the same way they were in our hunter gather days. 

So, doing things that make a positive difference for others, connects us with others and our communities.  It protects us from feeling alone and separated and this connectedness to others is the foundation to our psychological wellbeing. 

Participation in activities that help others can help our mood and fight depression; many studies have shown the mood boosting benefits of volunteering. Doing something for others can give us a sense of meaning and purpose which also benefits our mood. Supporting others to regulate their emotions can help us learn to better regulate our own, so volunteering to meeting with asylum seekers or refugees to help them find out about their new communities, which can be an emotional experience – can lead to development of emotional intelligence and emotional regulation skills. 

So committing to help others, building new relationships and connections with individuals and communities, although altruistic in nature can have clear benefits for our wellbeing. 

Relationships are the foundation for this social action. Being able to build and maintain close relationships enables us to develop empathy and understanding for those around us. Without the experience of close and committed relationships we are more separate, less empathetic and less able to connect.

Find out more about the #Iwill campaign

Dr Kerry Ashton-Shaw
Clinical Psychologist

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