Last week I was on the bus and a young woman nearby collapsed face first onto the floor. She was unconscious for about 40 seconds before coming to. Fortunately she ended up being okay. One of the other passengers tended to her while I talked to the 911 operator. There were other people willing to help but as we were the closest and seemed to have it under control (if being scared stiff is under control), they moved away.
When we see someone in urgent need, like the woman on the bus, or an accident on the road, or a child who’s fallen off a swing, a lot of us will jump in wanting to help. We don’t even think twice about it. However, most of our days aren’t nearly that eventful. Despite this, I’m sure we can recall when we might have given someone directions, let them go ahead of us in a line or picked up their dropped keys.
Why is it that we are willing to help someone so readily? Even if we don’t know the person, many of us would go out of our way to open a door for a stranger. Is it because we are told as kids it is better to give than to receive, or do we actually get something out of it ourselves?
That might sound selfish but it was something I learned in one of my first jobs . My boss at the time told me we all do something because it benefits us. He even went on to say that even Mother Theresa was selfish in that helping others made her happy.
To scientists, it’s obvious why people in the same family help each other; that family wants to preserve their genetic line. This isn’t done consciously such that I help my kids grow in order to preserve their DNA, but from an evolutionary biology point of view, much of how we have developed as humans is founded in ensuring we pass on our DNA. This is referred to as The Selfish Gene theory.
So how does this theory apply when we help others not related to us? If we were all that selfish, we would be far less pleasant and opening the doors for others would be the least of our problems. One might say this is because we’ve been taught to be polite. And maybe that’s true. Maybe we’re more worried about the bad looks we get if we don’t give up our seat on the bus to the person with crutches.
There’s more to it than just that. A lot of us know that helping others engages certain areas of our brain related to rewards and lower stress activity. The researchers also found that we feel better giving something than receiving something.
We also tend to feel better about ourselves when making decisions we feel are fair, compared to ones that we may feel are unfair. And these decisions seem to be instinctive such that when study participants were pressed for time into making a decisions, the outcomes were more cooperative than selfish.
It’s possible that these are still learned behaviours, and of course, with any behaviour, the environment you grow up in plays a key role. Could it be though, we have a natural tendency to help others? A study in toddlers found that children were able to identify and offer help to an adult in need, which may suggest helping others is part of who we are, and there are benefits to it as well.
Even for people we don’t know, helping others can reduce anxiety and stress. Students with social anxiety who were instructed to perform a random act of kindness (even opening a door) daily for four weeks had lower anxiety compared to a control group. When we help others, our body releases oxytocin, which in some cases can enhance social and bonding aspects of human behaviour, and may be involved in the stress reducing aspect of helping others.
Even patients suffering from chronic pain reported less pain after peer volunteering with other patients. This may be a reason why counselling support groups are able to stay active as people feel better knowing they are helping others.
Over the long term, consistently helping others can improve your health and decrease risk for disease. People volunteering may have a lower risk for hypertension and also report better health. Indeed, a review of 40 studies found that people who volunteered had a lower risk for early death. It’s possible that people who are healthy and more socially outgoing may be the ones more likely to volunteer. Even still, there does appear to be some benefit to helping others.
So when you’re feeling stressed or anxious, holding a door open for a complete stranger may be just the thing you need. And doing random acts of kindness over days, weeks and years may also help maintain your long term health.