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Can helping others make us happier?

June 22, 2017

It’s more potent than a vitamin pill: from instant mood boosts to greater self-satisfaction, helping others puts us in the pink of mental health. So what is the science behind this secret to happiness, and how can we avoid getting big headed from helping others?

With long work hours and congested living spaces, happiness in Singapore can sometimes feel like a myth. The rankings don’t bode well either. In a 2012 Gallup poll, Singaporeans were ranked as the least happy people in the world. In fact, according to the Singapore Mental Health Study conducted by the Institute of Mental Health in 2010, one in 17 Singaporeans have suffered from Major Depressive Disorder at some point in their life.

While professional treatment is always recommended for severe cases, a little mood boost doesn’t hurt either. How? Through the simple act of helping someone.

 

How does helping others affect brain chemistry?

According to clinical psychologist and wellness coach, Dr. Lara Honos-Webb, the road to happiness begins with a simple act of helping someone in need. This, she says, generates mood-boosting neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring chemicals in your brain that keep your mind calm and resist mood disorders. Knowing how to reap its benefits can help improve your overall mood and health.

In an article with Psychology Today, Dr. Honos-Webb explains the brain chemistry that takes place when we have someone else’s back. “When we help others and do kind acts, it causes our brains to release endorphins, the chemicals that give us feelings of fervor and high spirits – similar to a “runner’s high’,” she says.

And that’s not the only chemical boost we get. “Doing something nice for someone also gives the brain a serotonin boost, the chemical that gives us the feeling of satisfaction and well-being,” continues Dr. Honos-Webb. “Most of the anti-depressant medications work by increasing the amount of serotonin available to your brain. All this means that doing nice things for other people changes your brain in ways that make you feel better.”

 

But when does helping others become vanity?

Unfortunately, not all forms of charity are altruistic. Some of which are even motivated by vanity – the desire to be perceived by others as good-natured outweighs genuine care for the party receiving help. School counselor Kelly Wee shares why we possess this need to appear saintly. “Not everyone has the quality or ability to help someone. So helping others creates the appearance of competence and goodwill, which makes us seem selfless in front of others. Because of this, we stand out for the right reasons.”

That’s not to say being admired and appreciated is a bad thing. At the end of the day, helping others is encouraged. But when does this descend to hubris? Medical Director, Dr. Mark E. Williams cautions how satisfaction from helping others might fester. “Pride often is a feeling of satisfaction as being superior to others,” he shares. “Misplaced pride deprives us of humility. If permitted, this inner satisfaction can develop into a sense of superiority.” So while the satisfaction of helping others might feel good, the motivation of doing so must remain clear.

“It’s important to constantly reflect on your intention in helping others,” Wee adds.

help

How do I start?

Here are three simple ways you can lend a helping hand:

  1. Help a neighbour

How many of us actually know the neighbours in our estate? For starters, take the time to greet them on your way to work. Better yet, simple gestures like holding the lift door for someone is always a great start towards a friendlier community, while benefitting from the feel-good benefit of helping out.

 

  1. Clear your trays

Cleaners work tirelessly to keep our surroundings clean. The next time you’re at a food court or hawker centre during lunch, why not practise the good habit of clearing your trays? A simple ‘thank you’ can do wonders too: as your table is being cleaned, give a smile and thank our cleaners. It may just brighten up their day as much as yours!

 

  1. Give up a seat to someone in need

Journeys in public transportation during the morning and evening rush hour can be a stress-inducing event. What’s more, after a long day of work, all you can think about is getting a seat for a moment of decompression. The next time you’re on the bus or train, try offering your seat to someone who might need it more. Sure, you would have to endure standing for a little while longer, but the cheer and relief you give others is enough of a reward.