The Good in Give and Take

Humans are not meant to go it alone. Science is finding evidence that we may be wired for close companionship, built to connect with and care for one another. Study after study shows not only that too much solitude hurts us, but also that offering and receiving support bring emotional and physical benefits.

It is good to receive.

Researchers have known for about a decade that people with stronger networks of friends or relatives enjoy better health and happiness and even live longer. In fact, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman says that social connections are as important to physical health as not smoking.

When people form close-knit, supportive, and trusting groups, they do better. Communities are healthier, businesses are more financially successful, and school children perform better academically and feel better emotionally. Loved ones can lessen our sense of pain, improve our feelings of self-worth, and remind us that we have a future beyond a time of adversity or sorrow.

Conversely, lonely people and those who don’t feel part of a community suffer. They experience more stress, are less resilient, and feel more helpless, hopeless and afraid. Further, people alienated from others have poorer health, including higher blood pressure, greater risk of heart disease, greater stress, and impaired immune functioning.

We all know that simply thinking of a loved one can put a smile on our face. But involving friends can also make difficult tasks feel easier. In one study, subjects were asked to estimate how steep a hill was. Those with a friend standing nearby judged the hill to be less steep than those who were alone. Even thinking of a friend led the participants to believe the hill was not as steep compared to those who thought of a neutral person.

And giving is just as important.

The importance of compassion is reflected in our very anatomy. Our bodies contain neural structures that make us feel good when we do something for another person. For example, the vagus nerve—sometimes called the nerve of compassion—extends from the top of the spinal cord and down through the chest and abdomen. It helps the body to, among other things, calm down and connect with others. The neurotransmitter oxytocin makes us feel warm and fuzzy when we connect with others, facilitating trust, bonding, and intimacy. And recent fMRI studies are making visible the neural pathways of social connections in our brains, illuminating the elaborate ways that the brain is organized to help people want to collaborate and coordinate.

A recent study found that meaningful service and purpose—something the researchers call eudaimonic well-being—can even affect the body at a cellular level, changing gene expression to control inflammation and improve immune response, as well as lowering depression.

In other words, our bodies are prejudiced toward certain kinds of well-being that involve others. Volunteering, helping others, and acting generously not only light up the pleasure centers in our brain but can keep us healthier.

What sort of meaningful service gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling? Tell us in the comment section below.

Comments (1)

Deborah Dallinger Aug 25, 2014 11:36pm
Mentoring teens and twenty-something students is very meaningful to me. I often watch them walking in my door worried, scattered, full of self doubt, and over time, their sense of empowerment and the light in their eyes begins to shine. What a delight!

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