- Researchers say helping others can make you happier as you age.
- They say that’s because this type of behavior helps release a mood-enhancing hormone known as oxytocin.
- It was previously thought that this neurochemical was predominately released in younger people.
- Experts say doing for others can involve charity work or even simply saying hello to people in stores, elevators, and other public places.
Does the fountain of youth and happiness flow with charitable giving and doing for others?
A newly published scientific study hints that it might.
The study, published in the journalFrontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, reports that people who donate to charity and do for others see an increase in their production of oxytocin, a mood-enhancing hormone connected to things such as reproduction that was long thought to decrease as a person ages.
The study involved about 100 people ages 18 to 99 who shared a video about a little boy with cancer. Researchers then compared the oxytocin level in the participants’ blood before and after seeing the film.
The participants were then given the option to donate to the cancer charity in the film. The results found that those who released the most of the hormone were most likely to give. Many of those study participants were older.
Paul J Zak, Ph.D., a study author and the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, told Healthline that the study is the first time the connection and increase in oxytocin have been shown in older adults.
“What was surprising… was the strength of the relationship [between doing good acts and releasing more oxytocin],” Zak said. “It is so strong in older people, it’s really one of the most ‘wow’ and bullet-proof [results] I’ve seen in 20 years of being in the lab.”
Zak said he was drawn to do the study after years of looking at the impact of oxytocin in younger people. The hormone has long been known to show increased production in “pro-social” behavior in a younger age. Zak wanted to see if that could be the case as well with older adults.
What researchers found, he said, is “consistent with our intuition as well,” since it is often suggested that those who do and give stay happy longer.
“By the way,” he added, “People who are happiest live the longest too.”
“This is a bookend result for me,” said Jorge Barraza, Ph.D., a professor of consumer behavior in the online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program at the University of Southern California and a co-author of the study.
“Very little is known about the role of oxytocin as we age,” he told Healthline.
Because oxytocin is associated with reproduction, he said, the assumption has long been that as we age, production of it declines.
“Now we indeed see [production] appears to be impacted outside of reproduction,” he said. “It makes you wonder.”
Should we all rush out and sign up for that local charity walk or find a way to help a neighbor as a proactive health step? Perhaps.
Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a New York City neuropsychologist, director of Comprehend the Mind, and a professor at Columbia University, told Healthline the study is surprising to her after years of thinking oxytocin production declined with age.
She sees it as good news and potentially a way to better our lives both physically and mentally as we get older.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Hafeez said. “You do good and it makes you feel good, so you want to do more, and you do.”
She said the study shows that good works release oxytocin, or as she calls it, “a feel-good” hormone.
So, could that mean that doing good from a young age – or doing more good as we age – could help us live longer and better?
Zak and Barraza want to find out. They’ve founded a company called Immersion that is looking to use wearable devices to help track things such as oxytocin levels and what spurs them.
The idea, Barraza said, is a wearable device that captures when we “flourish,” or “when they may be having experiences that are beneficial to them.”
Why would a person need this?
“We are busy and just not good at that,” Barraza explained.
In the meantime, Zak said, everyone – of all ages and social settings—can take some kind of positive action.
And should you not be the type to raise your hand to run the local charity tournament, he said, that does not mean all is lost.
He himself started with the simple.
“Some years ago I decided to say ‘hi’ to the people in the elevator,” he said. “A smile, a hello. It can do a lot for a person’s day.”
For those who may have some social awkwardness, he suggests getting a dog. It can be a nice way to do for another and also a possible ice breaker to befriend or be kind to others.
Zak also suggests doing more things in groups – exercise, hobbies, churches — any place that gets you in a happy group setting will help.
Step by step, the study shows, your oxytocin production should increase.
“The key issue here is anyone can do this,” Zak said. “The brain is adaptable.”