Helper’s High

image: iStock photo

The term ‘Helper’s High’ was first coined by Allan Luks, in his book, ‘The Healing Power of Doing Good’. You’re probably familiar with the high. It’s that good feeling we get when we do something kind for someone or an animal.

There are loads of ways we can help each other. Giving time to someone face-to-face brings on Helper’s High. A recent study commissioned by the charity ‘Guide Dogs’ found that when we give our time in helping someone the improved feeling can last up to 24 days. It’s even more pronounced in the 18-24 age group, where effects were reported to last 34 days.

Donating money also makes us feel good. The study found that donating money can make us feel positive for round about a week.

The good feelings come because we’re wired to feel good when we’re kind, which I’ll explain below. That’s why Helper’s High is pretty universal. The Guide Dogs study was of over 2,000 people and found that 95% of those who gave their time to a good cause felt happier. This is what Allan Luks’ study found too. Questioning over 3,000 people on their charitable ways, he also found that 95% reported feeling good when they help others.

I personally think it’s important that kids and teens realise the importance of kindness and how it makes a difference. They’re the future.

In a powerful but mostly forgotten study back in the early 1970s, rather than be punished, teenagers with behavioural difficulties were asked to tutor younger children instead. The results were later published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. By helping younger kids, the ‘teen tutors’ made significant improvements themselves in maths, reading, and sentence completion tasks. Most of them also showed positive changes in their attitude towards themselves, others, education and the future. Quite a result, I’d say.

There are hundreds of studies that show how kindness makes us happier and is healthier for our hearts and immune systems. I don’t intend to list them all here. That would make this a veerrryyyy long blog. If you do want to access them, I collated a large number of them in my book ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ and reference over 250.

In the meantime, let me explain why kindness makes us happier. In short, it’s because we’re genetically wired that way. Helping each other is a behaviour that glues communities together. Thus, through evolutionary timespans, nature has ‘selected’ genes that a) make helping each other a quite natural behaviour and b) ensure that helping each other makes us feel good, so we’ll keep doing it, thus further gluing our communities together.

I would also say that deep in the human psyche, and this is a spiritual thing for many, is the sense that helping each other is basically the right thing to do. We have an intuitive sense of the rightness of helping.

What I really want to get across in this blog is that helping each other is a mark of who we are. It’s in our nature. It doesn’t mean that you have to spend every waking moment helping, else you feel guilty, nor that you respond to every call for help. We have lives to lead, families to support, jobs to do. But if we can just be a little alert to the needs of those around us, that’s a good thing.

I’d also like to address an issue some have with kindness, that it’s really selfish to be kind because we benefit from it. My view is that we help because it’s our nature to be kind. We don’t help to make ourselves feel good. Evolution has simply built a little emotional reward into our biology.

I’m saying this because I’ve read endless debates on whether there is really such a thing as altruism, given that we gain from an act of kindness. It’s the question I’m most often asked when I give a media interview on the science of kindness. My answer is always the same. “I prefer to leave the arguments to academia. In meantime I’m going to be kind.”

And in case you wondered, helping animals produces the same positive effects as does helping humans. Around a month after our dog, Oscar, passed away last year, we went to a rescue center and took some dogs for a walk. In these places dogs don’t always get the exercise they need and the staff are always looking for volunteers to help out. I remember feeling really good that we were able to provide some happiness for the dogs we walked.

And to come back to the selfish issue, we walked the dogs because we loved Oscar and we knew how much he loved to walk. We took the dogs out because we knew it would bring them some pleasure. It just so happens it gave us a sense of inner warmth as well.

I love that there’s such a thing as Helper’s High, that kindness benefits our health (mental and emotional health, heart, immune system, nervous system). It’s like a little reward we get. We don’t help for the reward, but it’s kind of nice when it comes anyway.

So I’ll leave you with my guiding principle in life, which you might be familiar with from some of my other blogs: Whatever you do, do it with kindness.

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  1. Doreen Gowing on May 8, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    Hi David,
    I love this blog and your book on How Kindness is good for you. Reading it tugged at me a bit, as I was feeling the conflict with the importance of self love and kindness for others. As you say, both kindness to others and self love can have the label of ‘selfish’ hanging over them. I agree completely that we are programmed to be kind. Fulfilling our need to belong. To be part of the group is driven by our reptilian automatic survival system. And that is wonderful it makes for a wholesome society.
    As I have been working on my own self-love over the years, I realise the beauty of the hidden link that being kind to others is about sharing that self-love. It is as if there is a vibration between our hearts and they beat together in rhythm.
    That a true act of kindness comes from the heart with no strings attached. That is the challenge. The Helper’s High can not be experienced when it is simply a piece of ‘horse trading’ so to speak. Silently and even subconsciously acting from, ‘if I do this for you, I expect something back in return’, ‘anything for a quiet life’, or ‘I hope you will like me if I do this for you’. This is what leads to us feeling hurt, disappointed in others, resentful or angry. We learn about being kind as a child and sometimes it’s as if we have misunderstood what being kind is really all about. That the message from our parents or teachers got lost in translation (easily done when you are just a child).
    I wish I had understood like this: ‘that when your intentions and actions are coming from the heart that is what makes it an act of kindness and act of self-love all at the same time’.
    If we are in any doubt about the quality of our actions I think checking if we feel the ‘Helper’s High’ afterwards is a lovely little test. I shall use this one from now on.


    • David R. Hamilton PhD on May 13, 2015 at 10:58 am

      Thanks for your lovely comment Doreen. I think your words will offer as much guidance to others as my blog does, if not more. Y’know, it would a good idea if you put your thoughts like this ‘out there’ in your own blog or regular emails. Just saying!. 🙂 They are wise words.

      • Doreen Gowing on May 14, 2015 at 2:24 pm

        Hi David,

        Thank you for your feedback and encouragement. My blog has been neglected for some time simply because I have not focused on writing it yet. It will happen. Each day that it doesn’t happen is a day closer to it happening.

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