Altruism – why it will make you happier and healthier

This month, stop thinking about yourself! And try thinking about others. (Not that I’m saying that you don’t already) But there is now a body of research which has found that when you look after and care for others, give back and love others, then you will conversely benefit your own health and happiness.

Acts of altruism—donating time, money, goods, services—bring great pleasure to people, literally stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain, say researchers.

Stephanie Brown, a psychologist at the University of Michigan who has done research on altruism suggests that one reason giving to others can be so satisfying is that it makes us feel more connected to others. Social bonds—a long relationship, strong friendships, community ties—these have all been linked to happiness, so her hypothesis seems to bear weight.

Other studies have shown that helping others give us a “helper’s high” – a physical and emotional sensation of euphoria that lasts for days or weeks.

Not only that but the more you do good the more optimistic you will become, have more energy, have better perceived health, better weight control and a greater sense of relaxation – as well as a stronger immune system.

If the though of volunteering doesn’t ring your bell, then just thinking compassionately and lovingly of other people will also make you happier and boost your immune system.

New research conducted with brain imaging techniques showed that a compassionate meditation lights up the part of the brain that correlates with people’s well being and positive emotions like joy and enthusiasm.

Richard Davidson, director of the study and professor of psychiatry and psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison monitored 16 Buddhist monks who had practiced about 10,000 hours of meditation.

Using brain imagining techniques, the researchers found that brain activity while meditating on compassion was especially high in the left prefrontal lobe (the part of the brain that is associated with joy and happiness) and swamped activity in the right prefrontal lobe, where negative emotions and anxiety show up. This was something that has never been seen from purely mental activity.

Obviously, we’re not all Buddhist monks with 10,000 hours of meditation practice behind us but another study conducted by Davidson has show that three months of compassion meditation training with ordinary mortals also significantly shifted activity in their brains from right to left. Meditation also boosted the control group’s immune system by an average of 20%, showing that this kind of meditation makes us healthier too.

I know it seems slightly topsy turvey to suggest that you unselfishly focus on others for selfish reasons but it seems like a win/win situation to me. Try it out this month.

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www.thebig-leap.com

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