Your Brain on Altruism: The science behind holiday do-gooding / by Gia & Danielle

Photo by  Jez Timms  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

by Danielle Keenan-Miller, Ph.D. 

The holiday season comes with an onslaught of requests for your time and money: envelopes from non-profits arriving to ask for donations, soup kitchens requesting volunteers, and even the ringing bell of the Salvation Army santa. In the midst of the stress, lack of sleep, and (let’s be honest) grumpy mood that can accompany the holiday season, it’s easy to tell ourselves that we don’t have the time, energy, or resources to give. However, the science of altruism suggests that accepting some of these requests, rather than depleting us, would likely improve our well-being (in addition to contributing to the social good).

We know from many studies in psychology and medicine that volunteers are happier and healthier overall. In one large-scale study that followed people over time, stressed out adults were less likely to die in the next five years if they were involved in helping out other people in their life (1). Although that result may be surprising, several other studies have found similar results and have started to identify the reasons for that connection. We know that volunteering can improve people’s health in very particular ways-- for example, older adults who volunteered were less likely to develop hypertension over the course of four years (2). The same effect seems to hold for younger people as well. Teens that volunteered weekly for two months had lower levels of inflammatory markers, lower levels of cholesterol, and weighed less than adolescents who were not randomly assigned to volunteer over those two months (3). And the benefits are not only physical; volunteering can lower the risk of depression (4). The key to reaping these benefits appears to be choosing a way to volunteer that feels meaningful and exciting to you. Think about the things in life that you really value-- not the cause of the moment or something you think you “should” care about, but something that makes your heart light up or a social problem that really matters to you.

If you can’t volunteer (or can’t volunteer for every organization you’d like to), making charitable donations also appears to have some brain benefits. Donations to charity are associated with increased activity in parts of the brain that are associated with reward, and those effects are even stronger when the donations are made voluntarily (5). Doing good feels good. There’s no shortage of ways to make an impact on causes you care about this holiday season, and to reap some rewards for yourself while you’re at it!


1) Poulin, M.J., Brown, S.L., Dillard, A.J., & Smith, D.M. (2013). Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. American Journal of Public Health, 103, 1649-1655.

2) Sneed, R.S., & Cohen, S. (2013). A prospective study of volunteerism and hypertension risk in older adults. Psychology and Aging, 28, 578-586.

3) Schier, H.M.C., Shonert-Reichl, K.A., & Chen. E. (2013). Effect of volunteering on risk factors for cardiovascular disease in adolescents: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, 167(4), 327-332.

4) Musick, M.A., & Wilson, J. (2003). Volunteering and depression: the role of psychological and social resources in different age groups. Social Science & Medicine, 56, 259-269.

5) Harbaugh, W.T., Mayr, U., Burghart, D.R. (2007). Neural responses to taxation and voluntary giving reveal motives for charitable donations. Science, 316, 1622-1625.