Giving an apple to a homeless person on your way out of the farmer’s market. Maneuvering out of rush hour traffic to scoop up an errant lost pup. Sticking a few coins in Questionable Santa’s dingy donation receptacle.
Ever wonder why you might feel an intrinsic need to do good despite the fact that there’s no payoff?
It’s likely because your body remembers how wonderful it felt last time.
In roughly 350 B.C., Aristotle called it “eudaimonia,” or overall well-being maintained by the fulfillment that comes with working toward something larger than yourself. Today, it’s studied in the field of positive psychology and has the honor of being the most inspirational aspect of human physiology: our bodies can convert good deeds into good health.
Imagine that your body is a massive multi-colored puzzle: each facet of your life is a piece that contributes to its functionality. Sleep, sustenance, and the rest of the basics account for most of the pieces. We’ll call these beige. While work, chores, and mundane duties eat up the remainder – obviously grey. So what’s left over to represent your vitality, which is nothing if not incredibly colorful?
Enter activism. It makes sense: what you invest your life in once you’ve accomplished the day’s necessities is the most legitimate reflection of who you are, especially when you aren’t allotted a whole lot of time to simply be who you are in the first place.
Overall, people are having a hard time. Among factors that contribute to depression, stressors are top offenders. People aged 20 to 24 are effected most, and women are nearly twice as susceptible to this mood drop as men. Even the most upbeat people experience a blue day every once in a while. Moreover, even those of us who are lucky enough to have jobs know that it is commonplace not to be head over heels with said jobs at all times. We haven’t all reached “Legendary” level in the game of occupation quite yet, and the result is that these occupations are all too often the Joffrey Baratheons to our Sansa Starks.
But finding yourself somewhere buzzing and positive, surrounded by like-minded people who are present of their own accord, devoid of payment and determined to move mountains, is the out-of-body experience that we need, and that our bodies crave.
Prominent Pain Management Specialist Dr. Paul Arnstein took a group of subjects who suffered chronic pain and asked them to try something new: volunteer work. Not only did the group report less pain, but there was a widespread lessening of physical disability over time.
It turns out that doing good is addictive for a reason: altruistic behaviors wake up the mesolimbic pathway, the strongest reward pathway in the brain. This means that as far as your brain is concerned, eating some particularly scrumptious kiwi berries and behaving on behalf of a cause are both going to be physiologically identical. What’s more, whatever behavior is supplying you that feel-good sensation is passed on to parts of the brain that give it a special place in your recollection, making you want to do it again.
So next time you’re feeling down, dedicate some time to a good cause. It’ll make you feel better (and healthier), guaranteed.
Image source: vastateparkstaff / Flickr