The Science Behind Why Paying It Forward Makes You Feel So Damn Good

by Alexia LaFata

There's no happiness like one that comes from doing something good for someone else without expecting anything in return.

This kind of selflessness comes in all shapes and sizes. It can happen on a large scale -- like, for example, whenever Oprah has one of her famous giveaways -- or on a smaller scale, like what occurs between you and another individual.

Whether you help your little brother solve a math problem, volunteer at a nearby homeless shelter or an animal clinic, or assist your stubborn elderly neighbor with yard work, you learn what it means to be altruistic.

And it's altruism that brings human beings true, unfettered bliss.

The most important part of altruism is the fact you aren't doing something to benefit yourself or for the purpose of self-satisfaction and ego.

Instead, altruism is about doing something solely to benefit others, and it's the purity of the act that makes other people more willing to be altruistic, too.

Unfortunately, there's a widely-accepted notion human beings are all selfish individuals who act out of pure self-serving motives.

For as long as psychologists have been studying human behavior, people have been skeptical about the idea we're capable of really doing something without expecting any personal benefit in return.

People have been skeptical, so it seems, about altruism.

But in his book Motivation, Altruism, Personality and Social Psychology: The Coming Age of Altruism, Dr. Michael Babula challenges these negative ideas about selflessness.

He questions the research that says human beings are motivated by "self-interest," constantly acting to maximize their personal benefits.

Dr. Babula discusses the decades he spent researching the benefits of selfless behavior, insisting pure, unadulterated altruism indeed exists -- and there are incredible benefits to come along with it.

His research suggests human beings who live for others actually lead incredibly successful lives and show lower rates of depression and stress.

In support of this research, Jessica L. Collett and Christopher A. Morrissey of the University of Notre Dame also suggest when you help other people in the name of true altruism, you experience less psychological indicators of anxiety and an increase in positive feelings towards yourself.

Even more research from the APA journal Health Psychology suggests when you volunteer for the sole purpose of helping others, you actually live longer than those who volunteer for themselves or an ego boost.

It's easy to determine if someone who does something nice is expecting something else in return or is just doing it to make themselves feel better and not to make you feel better.

Those people are untrustworthy. You can't help but question their motives, and you feel anxious around them because you know they're going to expect you to reward them for their kindness in some way or another.

But kindness should never be a currency. It should be out of the goodness of one's heart, and should be used as a means to inspire other people to act similarly -- especially when it comes to paying it forward.

When you're truly altruistic towards other people, social scientists have discovered you start a chain reaction of those people helping others out.

Your act of kindness begins a ripple effect of kindness extending far beyond your social circle and into the rest of the world.

This wonderful chain reaction you created is called "paying it forward." And it feels amazing.

If one human being who lives for others is happier and has lower rates of depression, stress, and anxiety, imagine what would happen if that one person inspired another person to live for others.

All of those people would experience those same wonderful benefits.

When your little brother smiled after finally figuring out that algebra equation, or when a homeless person felt grateful for his cup of soup for the day, or when your elderly neighbor thanked you endlessly for your assistance, they each learned how good it feels to be helped out.

They learned how special it is to have someone take the time out of their day to focus his or her attention on them.

Now imagine if your little brother, or that homeless person, or that elderly neighbor did the same thing to another person. Imagine if they made someone else feel as special as you'd made them feel.

That's what paying it forward is all about.

Perhaps, if everyone paid it forward, if everyone took the time out of their day to do something nice for someone else out of the pure goodness of their heart, the whole world would be a much better place.