It seems as though the entire world is struggling right now. Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality are soaring. And it’s not just us adults who are suffering. According to a February 2023 report from the CDC, we also have an adolescent mental health crisis.
To make matters worse, there is a shortage of mental health care providers to address this growing need, and in the U.S., many who need it most lack access to mental health care. (Recent data from Mental Health America, the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of people with mental illness, reports that more than 11%, or 5.5 million people with mental illness, do not have access to care.)
We have work to do, but the outlook isn’t hopeless for people struggling with their mental health. Affordable therapy resources exist. Emergency hotlines and chatlines, including the year-old 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, are there when needed. And experts see real value in diet, exercise, and stress relief when dealing with mental health conditions.
One perhaps surprising way you can make yourself feel better—according to science—is to help someone else.
The feel-good effect
Taryn Fernandes, MD, a supervising physician at MEDvidi, explains, “Studies have shown that helping others can decrease cortisol, the stress hormone, while increasing oxytocin, related to positive social interactions and generosity.” She continues, “These factors improve mental wellbeing, reduce depression and anxiety symptoms, and sustain mental health by fostering social interactions.”
Imagine you are on your way into the post office, juggling five packages and contemplating how you’ll get the door open (never mind making a second trip!). Then someone notices you. He holds the door open and takes two of the boxes over to the counter for you. This stranger just made your day. So, you thank him for his kindness and guess what? It turns out, helping you makes him feel good, too.
The benefits of helping others
This whole exchange takes less than a few minutes, yet those good feelings may last much longer. The reason is that doing something nice for someone releases a feel-good hormone (oxytocin) in your brain.
Asma Rehman, LPC, explains, “As human beings, we are wired to be social creatures, and helping others is a fundamental aspect of our social nature. Other research has shown that altruistic behavior can activate the reward center of our brains and reduce stress levels, leading to a sense of fulfillment and well-being.”
While doing an act of kindness can make a person feel good for a few minutes or hours, repeatedly engaging in acts of altruism can be a powerful tool to enhance mental health.
“Much like exercising, the ‘high’ (of an altruistic act) will be most potent during and immediately after the act, which causes this pleasurable chemical experience,” explains Erisa M. Preston, PsyD. “The ‘high’ will dissipate—within minutes (in the case of oxytocin) or up to a week from when the chemicals were released in the body. To have continuously elevated moods that rely solely on this immediate effect, a person would have to do altruistic acts frequently to maintain the biochemical ‘bump.’”
Helping others can allow you to step out of your feelings for a while. Working with a charity or helping out a neighbor who needs assistance can provide distraction. Explains Preston, “In psychological terms, focusing on others helps reduce rumination or intrusive thoughts about the stressors in your life and allows you to shift your focus onto something you feel more capable of handling at that moment.”
Neuroscience has found that by positively impacting others, people can feel an improvement in their personal well-being.
“Focusing on our friend’s suffering may enable us to be grateful for the things in our life that are not perfect, but we still have time to try to resolve them,” says Preston.
Types of generosity
So how can people get the most psychological benefit from altruistic actions? That depends on the individual. Preston explains: “The acts that most impact you will be different for every person depending on what your resources—both internal and external—are and your capacity for expanding them.”
Internal resources are traits like patience, intelligence, general coping skills, overall resilience, and feelings of hopefulness or optimism. External resources are more quantifiable and include the amount of time you have and your financial means.
How to become more generous
Start small. Psychiatrist Michael McGee, MD, recommends taking a look at how you are living your life to assess areas where you can cultivate generosity in yourself.
“Consider how you spend your time and how you spend your money,” Dr. McGee says. “If you overindulge in watching too much TV (and many of us do), maybe you can attempt to watch 30 minutes less each week and devote that time to doing something for others.”
The importance of setting boundaries
While helping others can boost mental health, overdoing it can undo the good and turn problematic if you’re not careful.
“Boundaries enable you to be more deliberate and figure out how to help in ways that are more meaningful to you,” she says. “When you help willingly, you will derive the benefits of altruism. It’s a beautiful and self-sustaining cycle if you do it well.”
Finding true fulfillment
On the other hand, we all know people who like to make everyone aware of their benevolence.
“Be mindful of the narcissistic vulnerability to feel we are special because we are so generous or so loving,” Dr. McGee says. “Generosity is not a worthiness project. It’s about suffering less and having more joy.”
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