Helping is an antidote

Few of us are immune to the frustrations and challenges of daily life - family problems, conflicts at work, illness, stress over money. When we get depressed or anxious, experts may recommend pills or therapy. But an emerging school of thought suggests the simple, age-old principle of helping others.

Few of us are immune to the frustrations and challenges of daily life - family problems, conflicts at work, illness, stress over money. When we get depressed or anxious, experts may recommend pills or therapy. But an emerging school of thought suggests the simple, age-old principle of helping others.

Research shows that people who give time, money, or support to others are more likely to be happy and satisfied with their lives - and less likely to be depressed.

Carolyn Schwartz, a research professor in the US, did not start out looking at the value of helping others.

Instead, she wanted to see if receiving monthly peer-support phone calls from fellow multiple sclerosis sufferers would benefit others with the disease.

Over time a surprising trend emerged. While those receiving support appeared to gain some mild benefit, the real beneficiaries were those lending a supportive ear.

In fact, those who offered support experienced dramatic improvements in their quality of life.

The benefits of giving are not limited to those who are ill. When Schwartz later looked at more than 2000 mostly healthy Presbyterian church- goers across the US, she found that those who helped others were significantly happier and less depressed than those who did not.

Though this phenomenon is nothing new, recent research suggests there may be a biochemical explanation for the positive emotions associated with doing good.

In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, participants' brains were monitored by MRI scan while they made decisions about donating part of their research payment to charitable organisations.

When participants chose to donate money, the brain's mesolimbic system was activated, the same part of the brain that is activated in response to monetary rewards, sex and other positive stimuli.

Choosing to donate also activated the brain's subgenual area, the part of the brain that produces feel-good chemicals, like oxytocin, that promote social bonding.

Why doing good works?

Why should humans be programmed to respond so positively to giving?

"As Charles Darwin noted, group selection played a strong rule in human evolution. If something like helping benefits the group, it will be associated with pleasure and happiness," explains Stephen Post, author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People.

While evolution may have primed us to feel good from giving, it may not be the only reason helping others makes us feel better.

Since depression, anxiety, and stress involve a high degree of focus on the self, focusing on the needs of others literally helps shift our thinking.

"When you're experiencing compassion, benevolence and kindness, these push aside the negative emotions," says Post.

"One of the best ways to overcome stress is to do something to help someone else," says David Myers, a social psychologist. - MSN.com

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