There’s more to happiness than racking up pleasurable experiences. In fact, helping others – the opposite of hedonism – may be the most direct route to happiness, notes Stephen G. Post, PhD, co-author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People: The Exciting New Research That Proves the Link Between Doing Good and Living a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life.

“When people help others through formal volunteering or generous actions, about half report feeling a ‘helper’s high’ and 13% even experience alleviation of aches and pains,” says Post, professor of preventive medicine and director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y.

“For most people, a pretty low threshold of activity practiced well makes a difference,” Post says. This might involve volunteering just one or two hours each week or doing five generous things weekly – practices that are above and beyond what you normally do.

First documented in the 1990s, mood elevation from helping is associated with a release of serotonin, endorphins – the body’s natural opiates – and oxytocin, a “compassion hormone” that reinforces even more helping behavior, Post says.

Could compassion be rooted in our neurobiology? A National Academy of Sciences 2006 study showed that simply thinking about contributing to a charity of choice activates a part of the brain called the mesolimbic pathway, the brain’s reward center, which is associated with feelings of joy.

“Although just thinking about giving or writing a check can increase our levels of happiness, face-to-face interactions seem to have a higher impact,” Post says. “I think that’s because they engage the [brain’s] agents of giving more fully through tone of voice, facial expression, and the whole body.”

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