Helping others helps you. That's not new news — perhaps you've heard it from your mother or your priest or your great-uncle Joe for your entire life. But what is new is the firm biological basis of that old adage — the connections between altruism, caring and neuroscience. Health psychologist and Stanford lecturer Kelly McGonigal, PhD, drove that point home hard last week at a talk sponsored by the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.
The event kicked off with a meditation tailored to open hearts and minds outward — for participants to consider others as well as themselves. Even that five-minute exercise was enough to spur the release of oxytocin, sometimes called the "love hormone," McGonigal said. It "fine tunes our social instincts," she explained. It dampens fear, making it easier to help others and even improving one's ability to read facial expressions.
"We can create this biology by choosing to have a social response to stress," McGonigal told the audience. The academic term is "tend and befriend," coined by UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor, PhD. Rather than making her aggressive, Taylor and her colleagues found they softened when stressed, becoming more caring and pro-social.
A series of studies have demonstrated the power of the tend and befriend response. Urban teens who volunteer alleviate their own biological stress. Adults who contribute to charity are more resilient in the face of major life events. People feeling a time crunch — too much to do, too little time — can alleviate the feeling by spending time on others. And the list goes on.
"There's something about this tend and befriend mindset that seems to create physical resilience," McGonigal said.
Evolutionarily, the instinct makes sense in the event of a disaster, she said. "I have it so you all will survive if there's an emergency. My having the tend and befriend instinct is mostly about you."
Perhaps one of the most relevant illustrations of the tend and befriend response — and a lesson for adopting it — comes from study that just came out this week, McGonigal said. Two researchers asked 150 middle-age adults to tell the story of their lives. The stories from the mentally healthiest participants shared a similar theme: Personal suffering inspired them to do something to transform the suffering of others into something positive. They transformed their suffering from a negative into a positive.
"Helping others increases the chemistry of hope and courage and dampens fear and despair," McGonigal said.
Previously: Ask Stanford Med: Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal taking questions on willpower, Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses how stress shapes us and Why stress might not be so bad
Photo by David Hodgson