Do Good for Others, Feel Better Yourself

Dr. Cindy Haines Health Guide
  • I did not enjoy adolescence. In fact, I'd say I was kind of a disaster.


    Remember that movie, The Breakfast Club? I would be Ally Sheedy's character, except the football star didn't end up liking me. Or wait - was it wrestling? Well, no matter. He didn't like me either. But I would also like to say I would never, ever, ever make or eat a sandwich as gross as she did. Ever. I would also like to take this opportunity to distance myself from the dandruff scene.


    But let's get back to some psychological science…


    I've often thought about what it would have been like for me if I had been able to step outside of myself, get out of my own head, and put the focus on something bigger than myself. I think I would have had a much easier time growing up. If only I had realized much sooner that it isn't always about me. In fact, it often (and usually) isn't about me. And a focus on something other than me would help me feel happier, be healthier. But there I go again, thinking about me. For the sake of making my point, I shall continue on…about me.

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    I have tended to relate this to sports: I was a pretty good athlete but very insecure. I was fearful of criticism and rejection so I most often chose not to put myself out there, abandoning formal sports around eighth grade. I have deeply regretted that. Not only because I could have been really good, but because I think I would have enjoyed my school experience a lot more, and probably would have had an easier time growing up with a productive focus like that.


    A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reminds me of the notion that this "other focus" could go well beyond sports and even other nonacademic pursuits like music or writing. It could be volunteering; acts of altruism; putting someone else and their needs ahead of your own. We know that this is linked to positive mental and physical health benefits in adults, but this new research suggest it is also true for teens!


    Basically, the findings of the study were that 15- and 16-year-olds who enjoyed pro-social activities (like giving their money to family members) are less likely to become depressed than those who more so enjoy keeping the focus on (and the money for) themselves.


    The researchers used functional brain scans to measure ventral striatum (a brain region that regulates positive feelings in response to reward) activity in teens who engaged in various tasks with money. They gave money to others, kept the money themselves, or made risky financial decisions in hopes of reward. The researchers also assessed symptoms of depression at the outset and again after a year. Interestingly, activity in the ventral striatum in response to different scenarios predicted depressive symptoms over time. A higher level of reward activation in the ventral striatum seen with risk taking was linked with more depressive symptoms over time. On the flip side, higher reward activation in the pro-social context was associated with less depression.


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    "This study suggests that if we can somehow redirect adolescents away from risk-taking or self-centered rewards and toward engaging in these more pro-social behaviors, then perhaps that can have a positive impact on their well-being over time," the lead researcher said in a statement.


    Could we convince our kids that volunteering at a local animal shelter could make him/her a lot happier than attending some high school party? I don't know about you, but as a mom of two, I think it’s a comforting thought and worth a try!

Published On: April 25, 2014