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The science behind doing good

January 6, 2022 - 12 min read


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The science behind doing good

A spotlight on a BetterUpper doing good

3 steps to help you get started

Empowering human transformation results in a deep and meaningful impact, for individuals and the teams, families, and communities around them. When humans transform, learn, and grow, they’re able to solve the toughest problems. When that transformation happens at scale, the world changes for the better.

As we heard from our co-founders Alexi Robichaux and Eduardo Medina, we recently committed to Pledge 1%. As an organization founded with social impact at its core, this means BetterUp has committed to donating 1% of our equity, staff time, product, and profit to invest in unlocking human potential and opportunity in the communities where we live and work. We're grateful to our partner organizations for paving the way.

Heading into a new year, we thought it fitting to reflect on the psychology of altruism. Why do humans give back? What do the givers get out of the philanthropic experience? How do we maximize our impact on this world? How can we factor our giving habits into our overarching mental fitness goals? 

To help dissect this topic, Dr. Kristi Leimgruber, a psychologist and behavioral scientist at BetterUp, is helping to break down the science behind doing good — and how diversifying our giving back efforts can help increase our mental fitness.

The science behind doing good
From Dr. Kristi Leimgruber, Ph.D., behavioral scientist, and psychologist

Before we get into why humans make the decisions they do about giving back, it’s important to understand the science behind doing good. From a psychological standpoint, the links between happiness and altruism are some of the most fascinating and powerful I’ve encountered.

At first glance, the only beneficiaries of generous actions may be those at the receiving end, but science tells us this simply is not true. Indeed, we now know that doing good is actually good for us, mentally and physically.

1. Increased happiness

When we think about what will make us happy, our instincts often drive us to focus on our own achievements, life goals, or career aspirations, but science suggests that the happiness that we gain from giving to others is more powerful and longer-lasting.

In an ongoing series of experiments, Dr. Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues have gathered evidence from around the globe showing a connection between spending money on others and happiness. Recent data from Ricky Lawton and colleagues provides the clearest evidence to date that volunteering leads to increased happiness.

2. It's good for your heart (literally) 

Giving back can be good for your heart. According to research, people who give social support to others have lower blood pressure than people who don’t. This research has prompted some to include supportive interaction for patients recovering from anything coronary-related.

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3. Reduced depression and anxiety 

Volunteering or giving back is not an antidote to those struggling with depression or anxiety, but it can help alleviate symptoms for some people. One study found that folks who intentionally pursued compassionate goals benefiting others (like volunteering or acts of kindness) experienced positive symptom changes.

In addition to the benefit of shifting our internal thoughts from ourselves to others, engaging in acts of kindness also activates a physiological response that makes doing good feel good. The increased secretion of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin that we experience when giving back can help combat symptoms of anxiety and depression and increase feelings of social connection. 

A spotlight on a BetterUpper doing good 

As we examined the science of doing good, we also wanted to hear from our employees. We asked BetterUpper Stephanie Bailey, vice president, Revenue Marketing, to share her story. 

Stef BaileyWhat do you do?
I sit on the board of a local Washington, D.C. non-profit organization called Kid Power, an organization that inspires youth leadership through academics, physical and emotional wellness, and positive civic engagement.

Why do you do it?
My dad set the example. He grew up in a poor family in Philadelphia and didn’t have much growing up. As he excelled in his career, no matter how busy he was, he set aside time to give back. He passed away in 2005. To honor his memory (and continue the example for my own three children), I volunteer. 

In two words, how do you feel after you volunteer?
Humble and inspired.

How does BetterUp support your personal mission to give back? 

I always tell people the mission, vision, and values that Alexi and Eddie have created aren't just words on a wall. They are woven into everything we do, big and small. I do believe our mission to unlock greater clarity, purpose, and passion translates into our lives outside of work. 

3 steps to building doing good and feeling good into your mental fitness plan 

It might not be intuitive to tie giving back to mental fitness. But science tells us otherwise. As we look to the year ahead, think about ways you can diversify your mental fitness portfolio to reap greater benefits. Where can giving back fit into your well-being goals? Here are three steps to get started. 

  1. Start to build your mental fitness plan. Mental fitness is work. It requires a commitment to taking a holistic approach to supporting yourself as a whole person. If you’re not sure where to start, consider your personal value system. 

    What do you find meaningful? What’s important to you? Why are these values important to you? How do these values show up for you today? Start to make a list of what matters most to you.

    Then, take a look at your health and well-being. What goals do you have for yourself? How do you currently prioritize your mental fitness? What areas of opportunity can you identify? What are your strengths or passions? What are you currently doing that strengthens your mental fitness? What are you doing today that doesn’t serve your mental fitness goals? What can you let go of?

    Soon, you’ll have a good idea of what’s most important to you. But you’ll also have a good idea of what you want to work on.
  2. Factor giving back into your mental fitness goals. Take a look at your mental fitness plan. You might see aspects of physical health and wellness. Or you might see nutrition, diet, and mindfulness. You might see some areas you’ve identified align closely to your purpose or passion but aren’t sure what to do with it.

    Start to think about how you can diversify your mental fitness plan. By diversifying how you’re receiving mental health benefits, you’re opening up more opportunities for yourself and others. It opens up new avenues for you to create meaningful connections, deepen your impact, and reap the well-being benefits —  all in one.

    For example, you might consider donating 15% of your free time to causes you care about while maintaining 30% of your free time for physical activity. Perhaps you reserve another 20% for hobbies and activities that bring you joy. As for the rest, you might allocate to personal coaching, therapy, and rest. As a whole pie, you’re experiencing different positive mental health benefits from each source.
  3. Determine how you’ll allocate your donation of time or money (or both!). Once you’ve nailed down how important giving back is to your mental fitness plan, it’s time to determine how you’ll use it.

    Take a look at your values, purpose, and passion areas. Then, reflect on how much time (or money) you’d like to give. Think about ways your skills and passions can come to life through philanthropic giving. Consider how you will feel after making certain contributions — that feeling has a multiplier effect that matters. Be conscious of it.

    For example, if you’re passionate about youth leadership and development, is there an opportunity to volunteer your time with a local organization? If you are spending a good percentage of your free time at the local YMCA for your daily workouts, is there an opportunity to stack an hour with the after-school program every week?

    Once you’ve compiled a list of causes that pair well with what you care about most, you can determine how to best allocate your time and money. Organizations such as Giving Multiplier, GiveWell, and Charity Navigator focus on measuring impact and organizational effectiveness to ensure your philanthropic efforts do the most good for the populations they serve. 

As we head into this new year, we hope you take some time to reflect on what matters to you most. Putting your values in action — and in service to others — can help you maintain a state of well-being. You may find it helps bring more awareness to how you think, behave, and feel.

Human transformation isn’t a solitary pursuit or a straight path. It isn’t a race, either. The more we can help each other learn and grow, the better we’ll leave the world. 

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Published January 6, 2022

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