helping others - girl helping boy stand up

Helping others also helps yourself: these new studies explain why

Helping others also improves your own physical and mental health. We explain why that is, and show you how easy it is to get started!

A new meta-analysis in the journal Psychological Bulletin shows that helping others also improves your own health and happiness. It adds to the growing scientific literature showing that helping others also helps yourself, in more ways than you might expect.

Table of Contents

More on that below. But first, the new meta-analysis referred to above (full PDF here) looked at more than 200 previous studies, involving a total of almost 200,000 participants. It found a modest link between “prosocial behavior” and well-being.

According to the study’s lead author Bryant P.H. Hui, prosocial behaviors such as altruism, cooperation, trust, and compassion form the “necessary ingredients of a harmonious and well-functioning society.”

“It is part of the shared culture of humankind,” he said, “and our analysis shows that it also contributes to mental and physical health.”

Past research had already discovered that people who engage in these kind of behaviors are happier than those who do not. They also have better mental and physical health. But until now, evidence was lacking about the link between prosocial behavior and the positive results it brings to the “helper.”

The benefit of helping others depends on the situation

Not all acts of kindness bestow an equal amount of benefit to the helper. Relevant factors include the type of kindness on offer, as well as the age and gender of the giver. Other demographic factors also play a role. 

For example, the study found that random acts of kindness, such as helping an older neighbor carry groceries, had a stronger effect on well-being than did more formal kinds of giving, such as volunteering for a charity at a pre-scheduled time. Hui suggests this may be because the spontaneous and casual nature of informal kindness might make it easier to form social bonds, which strongly impact one’s level of happiness. Likewise, the inherent variation of informal giving makes it less likely to turn stale or monotonous.

Age also matters. Younger givers reported higher levels of overall well-being and psychological health. Older givers, on the other hand, benefited more in terms of improved physical health. In addition, women generally showed a stronger relationship between prosociality and well-being than men did.

Happiness is helping others: striving for more meaning in life

Furthermore, the researchers found a stronger link between kindness and “eudaimonic” well-being (which has to do with finding meaning in life) than between kindness and “hedonic” well-being (which has to do with happiness and positive feelings). 

In sum, this study “suggests a small and significant association between prosocial behavior and well-being,” the authors write. It also provides researchers with important insights into what types of prosociality are affected, and how people’s age and gender play a role.

Study: “Rewards of Kindness? A Meta-Analysis of the Link Between Prosociality and Well-Being” (full-text PDF)
Authors: Bryant P. H. Hui, Jacky C. K. Ng, Erica Berzaghi, Lauren A. Cunningham-Amos, and Aleksandr Kogan
Published in: Psychological Bulletin
Publication date: September 3, 2020
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/bul0000298
Photo: by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Five great ideas on how to give back

Like that old saying goes, what you give comes back to you. Do you have a passion for helping others? The best way to give your time or money is to give it in ways that are helpful to others.

Below are five great ideas about how you can give back to the community.

  1. Help with your hands, literally: Build Abroad is a non-profit that focuses specifically on construction volunteering.
  2. Start a fundraising campaign: GoFundMe explains the basics right here: define your goal, choose your platform, tell your story, spread the word, and say thanks.
  3. Organize a charity event: Take a look at Eventbrite’s 10-step plan.
  4. Volunteer your time: Walden University lists 10 great ways of doing so here.
  5. Become a coach or mentor: The Open University offers a free course on how to get started.

  1. Mental Floss offers a helpful rundown of the scientific benefits of helping others; for example, they find that it boosts longevity and happiness, while at the same time reducing chronic pain and lowering blood pressure. It also sets a good example for the kids.
  2. Along those same lines, University College London suggests that helping others creates a sense of belonging and purpose, while also boosting self-esteem and one’s sense of optimism. It also creates stronger friendships.
  3. Time magazine recently even called helping others the secret to happiness, with tips on how to avoid being guilt-tripped into giving back.
  4. Finally, Lifehack proposes some more practical benefits of helping out, for example creating a cycle of favors that will eventually pay off, as well as the free publicity aspects of volunteering; it also looks good on your CV or resume, they conclude.

Dictionary corner: synonyms for helping others

Need another word for helping others? And what’s a good “helping others” synonym that isn’t just a simple word you already know, like”assist” or “cooperate” or “abet”?

Below are a few suggestions, from popular idioms to some useful phrasal verbs.

  • bail someone out
  • be of assistance
  • be there for someone
  • chip in
  • come to the aid of
  • do someone a favour
  • do someone a good turn
  • get in on the act
  • get involved
  • give someone a flying start
  • give someone a leg up
  • join in
  • lend a (helping) hand
  • pitch in
  • play a part
  • save someone’s skin

Songs about helping others

Need a song to sing at your group’s campfire event? Or maybe you want a kind of “mantra” to sing when you’re on the job? Below are five great songs about people helping others, spanning back half a century. It seems that helping others in need is a theme that never gets old.

  1. Who could ever forget Bill Withers’ Lean on Me? Though Mr. Withers left us in 2020, his music lives on forever.

2. Barney (the purple dinosaur) has quite a few version of his song about People Helping Other People. Check out the compilation below:

3. A classic in the making in Bruno Mars’ Count on Me from 2010.

4. Another classic that’s aging well is Randy Newman’s You’ve Got a Friend in Me, perhaps best known from the Toy Story movie franchise. Below is the beloved 2017 version by “Claire Ryann and Dad.”

5. Last and far from least: enjoying its 50th birthday this year (the song was released in 1971) is the perennial James Taylor classic You’ve Got a Friend.


9 great quotes about helping others

Still need even more inspiration? Below is a list of nine famous quotes on helping others. And feel free to come up with your own!

  • “If you’re in the luckiest one per cent of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99 per cent.” ― Warren Buffett
  • “Love is not patronizing and charity isn’t about pity, it is about love. Charity and love are the same — with charity you give love, so don’t just give money but reach out your hand instead.” ― Mother Teresa
  • “No one has ever become poor by giving.” ― Anne Frank
  • “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” ― Charles Dickens
  • “Not for ourselves alone are we born (Non nobis solum nati sumus)” ― Cicero
  • “The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.” ― Barack Obama
  • “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “This is the only thing we can do that has any lasting meaning. This is why we’re here. To make each other feel safe.” ― Andre Agassi
  • “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” ― John Bunyan