Previous research has already shown that altruistic behaviors (extending kindness to others without expecting anything in return) can make you feel good.
This type of behavior in fact encourages the brain to produce chemicals such as dopamine that increase the feeling of well-being. Now, researchers have found that this type of behavior can also lower the sensation of pain.
To learn more about how altruistic behavior might influence pain perception, the researchers performed four experiments:
In the first experiment, they asked people who donated blood after an earthquake to rate the pain of the needle. They also interviewed people who give blood when there were no recent disasters.
They found that people who volunteered after the earthquake reported that the needle hurt less than the other group.
In a second experiment, the researchers asked volunteers to help them revise a textbook for migrant children while exposed to cold conditions. They found that these volunteers reported less cold-related discomfort than those who did not volunteer to review the manual.
In a third experiment, researchers compared cancer patients with pain who cooked and cleaned for others with similar patients who only did it for themselves, again found that those who helped others reported less pain.
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In their latest experiment, the researchers asked volunteers to donate money to help orphans. They also asked these subjects how much they thought their donation helped children.
Each of the volunteers then underwent an MRI while they received electric shocks at the same time. The researchers report that those who had donated showed less brain response to shock than those who refused to donate. They also found that the more a volunteer felt their donation had helped the orphans, the less their brain responded to the shock.
The researchers suggest that their experiments, when combined with results from other studies, indicate that altruistic behavior not only increases feelings of well-being, but also reduces feelings of pain.
Source Yilu Wang et al.
Altruistic behaviors relieve physical pain, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2019). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1911861117