Doing Good May Be a Natural Analgesic, Really!

New research supports the idea that our biology as well as our psychology can reward our prosocial, altruistic behaviors.


(Pavinee Chareonpanich / Shutterstock)

It’s common knowledge that good deeds make the giver feel better as well as people on the receiving end of their help. This ‘helper’s high’ has been supported by previous research, showing that when people extend kindness to others without expecting anything in return, it can trigger positive processes. These include the release of neurochemicals such as oxytocin linked to a ‘warm glow’ feeling that make do-gooders feel wonderful. Volunteering has been shown to reduce stress and improve depression, for example. But it gets better!

Now a new study from China,“ Altruistic Behaviors Relieve Physical Pain”, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that people putting others first may even experience a type of instant buffer to physical pain.

The researchers were prompted by curiosity. As they themselves put it, the scientific community has always been intrigued by how people willingly incur personal costs to help others. These researchers were motivated to look beyond the reported direct or indirect future benefits that “compensate” for altruistic actions. They wanted to look at instant returns in unpleasant situations.

In order to look into how engaging in altruistic behaviors might raise a person’s pain threshold, the researchers thought up four separate, real-world experiments.

In the first test, they asked people giving blood after an earthquake to rate the pain of the jab of the needles. They also asked this of those donating blood when there were no recent disasters. They found that people volunteering after an earthquake reported reduced pain.

In another experiment, researchers asked volunteers exposed to cold conditions to help revise a book for migrant children. These agreeing to help reported being less affected by the cold.

A third experiment saw researchers compare two groups of cancer patients who suffered from pain. Patients cooking and cleaning for others as well as for themselves reported less pain than those who just took care of these chores for themselves.

Finally, the researchers asked volunteers to donate money to help orphans, with those donating funds asked how much they thought their donations helped the children. All volunteers then underwent MRI scans while being given mild electrical shocks. The donors showed a reduced brain response to the shock. But there was more to come.

The researchers also discovered that the more the donors felt their contribution had helped the orphans, the less their brains responded to the shock. So the meaning people gave to their good deeds predicted how much pain their brains perceived.

As the researchers put it: “[this] was positively correlated with the performer’s experienced meaningfulness from his or her altruistic behavior.”

The scientists concluded that when added to the results of other studies, altruistic behavior results in a significantly reduced experience of pain as well as contributing to an overall feeling of health and wellbeing. The regions of the brain reacting to painful stimulation appear to be deactivated by the experience of giving:

“Our findings suggest that incurring personal costs to help others may buffer the performers from unpleasant conditions.”

Their conclusions also highlight the instant nature of the physical reward for altruistic actions: "Whereas most of the previous theories and research have emphasized the long-term and indirect benefits for altruistic individuals, the present research demonstrated that participants under conditions of pain benefited from altruistic acts instantly," the study authors revealed.

So helping others can lead to immediate pain relief, along with the uplifting release of feel-good chemicals and an elevated mood. This sounds like a perfect reason to put giving back on your 2020 to-do list!

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