Bartering Dopamine – Giving to Get

by Charlize Roselli on July 6, 2011

 “Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.”
– James Matthew Barrie

The virtues of volunteerism have always been extolled, but now psychologists and neuroscientists are both getting behind the idea that altruism can act as a significant dopamine trigger – releasing as much of the “feel good” chemical as an indulgent meal. A variety of longitudinal studies have shown that sustained helping – even as little as a few hours of volunteering a week – can significantly improve a person’s mood, energy levels, outlook, and in a few cases, alleviate chronic pain. Through fMRI studies neuroscientists have been able to correlate marginal philanthropic gestures, something as simple as dropping a dime in the Salvation Army bucket, with activation of the brain’s reward center and a surge of dopamine. Some neurologists have even identified potential “altruism genes” that, in addition to correlating with increased selflessness and empathy, also play crucial roles in the development and maintenance of dopaminergic pathways.

And, just like with destructive dopamine triggers – nicotine, cocaine, alcohol, etc… – each time you indulge your helping hand, the pathways that reinforce this behavior get a little bit stronger, potentially stimulating an increased desire to volunteer, and of course an increased amount of available dopamine. But it’s not just dopamine: volunteering stimulates the release of a variety of rewarding and insulating endorphins that boost immune system activity, decrease stress, and can even induce an enhanced “sense of purpose” and “overall satisfaction” in one’s life. One study even found that members of Alcoholics Anonymous who actively seek out and help to rehabilitate other alcoholics maintain a recovery rate nearly twice that of former problem-drinkers who don’t bother to lend a hand.

While destructive dopamine triggers never seem to go out of style, people getting addicted to helping people represents a powerful potentiality. After all, those who bring good dopamine to the lives of others can not keep it from themselves.

What do you think?

Will any sizable number of people ever see the value of replacing dangerous, wasteful, unhealthy, and foolish ways to to score dopamine with positive, creative, healthy, intelligent dopamine triggers?

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