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Being big-hearted may yield big psychological benefits

Street corners across the nation will soon be filled with volunteers ringing hand bells near bright red kettles as they collect donations for Salvation Army. The Red Kettle Drive, a fund-raising campaign started 120 years ago in San Francisco, is a holiday staple and sign of the giving season. And, as outlined in a story in today's Boston Globe, your decision to open your wallet or walk past kettle greeters could affect your own well-being:

Altruism appears to be innate, and researchers, doctors, and patients say the act of giving or helping offers deep psychological benefits.

"I think it's a very human phenomenon," said Dr. Helen Riess, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Evolution has wired the human brain to promote helpfulness, she said, something like "survival of the nicest."


The brain responds to such cooperative behavior by releasing the feel-good chemical dopamine, Riess said, and helping someone else improve - or even just watching an improvement - makes us, as empathetic beings, feel better.

The article goes on to discuss two patients who believe helping others helped them as they were treated for obsessive-compulsive disorder. And a University of California-Berkeley psychology professor said he’d like to see doctors "prescribe altruism" to treat a wide variety of problems, including depression, schizophrenia and anxiety:

It’s not biologically possible, Keltner said, to be extremely anxious and extremely giving at the same time.

Photo by Marilane Borges

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