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Do Good, Feel Better – The Science of Service


What if someone promised you a happier, healthier life – no exercise necessary – and had the secret to reducing stress and improving your mood? Would you be interested?

It all starts with service.

The definition of service is “the action of helping or doing work for someone.” Generally speaking, there are two areas of service that are more well-practiced than others: volunteering and giving. In 2018, just over 30 percent of Americans volunteered. There were more than 77 million volunteers that served over 6.9 billion hours.1 And, in 2018, Americans donated a record $427 billion to charities.2

So, why is it that we feel good after giving up our Saturday morning to help clean up trash at the beach? Why do we feel happier after giving away our money and time? And, better yet, why do we continue to serve? The answer to these questions, and the science of service, begins in your pituitary gland, located in your brain.

The pituitary gland is often dubbed the master gland because its hormones control other parts of the endocrine system. Oftentimes, the hypothalamus sends signals to the pituitary gland to release hormones.3 One of these hormones is oxytocin or the “love” hormone. It is called this because it facilitates trust and attachment between people. It is the same hormone that is released as mother and baby begin to bond.

Oxytocin is also responsible for the runner’s high that many athletes feel. A runner once described it as, “All is right with the world, I can do anything!” As we connect with a feeling of accomplishment or with other people as we serve, our brain releases oxytocin into our bloodstream, giving us a shot of this feel-good hormone.

There are many health benefits of oxytocin release. It reduces stress, lowers depression, and increases well-being. Oxytocin is also responsible for improving social skills and crystallizing emotional memories, allowing us to imprint and recall those feel-good moments.4

Because of this, research shows that there is a strong relationship between serving and health. Volunteers reported feeling less stressed, physically healthier, and having an improved mood. Another report shows that you can even feel like you have more time when you volunteer.5 The benefits don’t end with volunteering; giving is just as powerful.6 One study found that giving to charity had a similar effect on happiness as doubling household income.7

The good news is that you can make a difference today by doing a random act of kindness. Pay for the person behind you in the drive-through line or pick up trash that you may see. Write positive sticky notes and put them around your office. Cook a meal for someone; welcome a new neighbor to your street. The options truly are endless.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Choosing to help others, through service or giving, can sometimes feel like a step outside of your comfort zone.  But, the payoffs for your health and well-being are undeniable. Find a way to spend your time investing in the lives of others or improving a condition in your community and it is guaranteed you will find it changing your life.