We all know that serving others is, well, good. But did you know it doesn’t just serve those you serve? It turns out human beings are wired to help those in need, and more and more research is proving how when we do something for someone else, we also reap the benefits! So how can you use this info to help your employees thrive in both their work and home life?
We all know that early humans lived and worked in groups that shared the burden of labor much more equally than our current system of living. In fact, a recent study discovered that while it’s been assumed that men did more hunting and women more gathering, there was actually a fairly even division of these tasks across genders. Meaning that in the vast majority of hunter-gatherer societies, both men and women did the hunting and the gathering equally.
This same study found that there was also much more equal labor when it came to what we might consider “household tasks,” such as cooking and child-rearing. The reason I bring this up is because this study does a great job of showing that, at our most basic level, humans need other humans. We were never meant to work, parent, and take care of our needs alone. We were always meant to have a helping hand.
This is why in our modern world, so many of us feel alone. Our culture prides itself on being self-sufficient individuals, but more and more research has come out showing that this idea is a huge contributor to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, burnout, and physical issues like chronic fatigue, poor immune health, and obesity.
What’s most fascinating is that, across the board of any research study conducted, one group continually suffers less of these negative effects; people who regularly and actively serve others.
Why is that? What is it about serving others that seems to be able to combat these mental and physical health issues? Let’s take a look at the research:
The Helpers High is a fascinating phenomenon. It is essentially a high that many people experience after some act of service, and it’s actually an evolutionary response; when we help our fellow human beings, we help the human race survive. When we give back to a charity or help someone in need and have a sense that we got more out of the experience than we gave, it’s because we did! We kept the human race going for another day.
It’s All Brain Chemistry
Like runners high, when serving others, our brain releases endorphins. Endorphins are a brain chemical (or hormone) that floods the brain’s pleasure center. This is again a clever evolutionary adaptation where when faced with doing something that is uncomfortable but beneficial for our survival (like running away from a cheetah or makin’ a baby!), our body floods this part of our brain to be able to focus on the pleasurable aspect of what we’ve just done, rather than focusing on the energy we expended.
While Endorphins get the party started, they certainly aren’t the only hormone at play. When we give and volunteer, our body also releases oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. These hormones all have different functions, but their biggest benefit is that all three are mood boosters, and they block cortisol. Cortisol is the hormone responsible for stress. So not only is your brain filled with a ton of feel-good hormones, but it’s also incapable of experiencing stress! A great example of this is if you’ve ever had to do a really un-fun, difficult job with a friend and you spent the whole time laughing. Even though you logically know it wasn’t an enjoyable task, the experience was colored by the buffet of hormones filling your brain and making it all feel a lot better!
Give To Long Live
Cortisol, that stress hormone, has its place. It exists to tell you there’s a saber tooth tiger coming at you. And while most of us might not be facing saber tooth tigers, we are facing deadlines, family obligations, a challenging economy, cultural discontent, and political unrest, and your brain interprets all that the same.
While cortisol gets a bad rap, it’s there for a reason; to alert you to problems that need your attention. The problem is if we don’t deal with those problems as they arise, the cortisol doesn’t just go away. In fact, it filters into your cells. Cortisol is the primary source of physical inflammation. Not only that but there is research coming out that cortisol doesn’t just inflame your joints and muscles but fat cells as well. You heard me; stress is making you fat and achy! The worst thing cortisol does to you, though, is that it can physically kill you at a cellular level.
Managing our cortisol levels requires attention and intention in every area of our life, but a great starting point is to make a point to give back regularly. Since doing for others releases hormones that block additional cortisol production, it gives your body a break and a chance to purge that stress. Meaning that by giving back regularly, you’ll improve your body function and live longer!
Our brains are so amazing! Not only do they produce these incredible chemicals that help us, but they also help us process our experiences into something that is easy to understand. In fact, this is one of the reasons why some people block out traumatic memories. It’s not always that they don’t want to remember, it’s that the experience was so awful that their brains can’t make sense of it.
But the inverse of that is true as well; We create deep memories when we find meaning and purpose in them. Because of this, a lot of research shows that people who give their time in service of others have better memory function. Meaning that when we experience something that we believe is meaningful or impactful, it improves our brain function. Our brains can make faster connections to find purpose and hope.
All that to say that giving back makes us resilient. We can better face challenges, trials, and even traumas in our own lives by being a part of the solution to those problems in others’ lives. What’s even more fascinating, people who are highly resilient produce less cortisol and manage it better.
Do It Together
Hopefully, by now, you’re sold on giving back and all its incredible benefits on our mental, physical, and emotional health. But it doesn’t just stop there. Remember that hormone Oxytocin? Its nickname is the “bonding hormone.” Oxytocin is released when we hug a loved one, hold and or feed a baby, cry with a loved one, share a first kiss… It’s a chemical that helps us care for and love our people better.
The social implication is that when we serve others, we bond with the people we’re serving and the people we serve alongside. Our brains are mapping the experience to say, “These are people I would do anything for; they matter to me, and they’re important to keep around.”
I’m sure you can see the social and communal benefits of that kind of brain messaging! This is why giving back cultivates empathy; it helps us to see ourselves in other people’s shoes and to value our fellow humans more. And that creates a kinder, gentler, better world.
I know this is a LOT of information, but hopefully, it has inspired you to give back and reap all the amazing benefits it has to offer. I also hope you consider taking this information into your workplace. Whether you’re the CEO or the Intern, cultivating a culture of service has the power to alter your workplace completely. It’s a great way to meet and bond with your co-workers or employees and boost morale. But it also gives you the opportunity to give the folks you work with the opportunity to become healthier, happier humans.