helping hand
Giving to others just might help people in the treatment of their own aches and anxieties

A German researcher recently identified a gene that appears to promote generosity.

It's not biologically possible to be extremely anxious and extremely giving at the same time, says Dacher Keltner, a professor at University of California-Berkeley.

American scientists are finding that being big-hearted may trigger the brain's pleasure centers.

And Jeff Bell and Jared Douglas Kant are convinced that helping others cope with obsessive-compulsive behaviors made the difference in their own treatment for the disorder.

Giving, it seems, is not just a seasonal thing. Altruism appears to be innate, and researchers, doctors, and patients say the act of giving or helping offers deep psychological benefits.

"I think it's a very human phenomenon,'' said Dr. Helen Riess, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Evolution has wired the human brain to promote helpfulness, she said, something like "survival of the nicest.''

"If we didn't help others through altruism, we wouldn't have as many people around,'' said Riess, also the director of empathy research and training in the department of psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital. "If our village were attacked by invaders, individuals would just get into a hole and save themselves. But instead, they work together. Mutual aid sustains species.''

The brain responds to such cooperative behavior by releasing the feel-good chemical dopamine, Riess said, and helping someone else improve - or even just watching an improvement - makes us, as empathetic beings, feel better.

"Doing good for others - I think most people don't do it because it's going to come back to do good for them,'' she said, "but that's usually how it works.''

Not everyone is equally generous, though. And some of that difference may be built into our genes.

Martin Reuter, a professor at the University of Bonn, published a paper late last month identifying a gene that can help distinguish generous people from stingier ones.

We inherit two versions of most of our genes - one from each parent - which can be the same or different. Those who are most charitable, Reuter's research indicated, generally have a positive outlook on the world as well as two copies of a particular gene variant called COMT-Val. Those with one copy of a related gene variant, COMT-Met, are less likely to donate money to a needy child in a developing country, and more likely to have a negative view of life. People with one of each of these genes lie in the middle, according to the research, published in the journal Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience.

(Genes aren't exactly destiny, though, notes Reuter who, with two copies of COMT-Met says he's the exception proving the rule.)

Bell and Kant said they didn't think much about being generous when they were in the throes of their obsessive-compulsive disorder. But now, both men say that helping others has been an essential part of their cure.

Kant, a graduate student in the Simmons School of Social Work in Boston, said he used to be completely paralyzed by his anxieties, suffering two hospitalizations and barely finishing high school. Twice, he received the highest possible score on a scale measuring obsessive behaviors and thoughts.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a kind of talk therapy that helps people change their thinking, made a big difference for Kant. Volunteering, he says, keeps him from backsliding. Kant donates time to the speaker's bureau of the International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation, regularly supporting people who are still grappling with their disability.

Though there is no scientific research proving this link between helping others and helping oneself, Dr. Michael A. Jenike, chairman of the foundation's scientific advisory board, said it's an essential part of the treatment he provides.

"I've seen so many people really kick OCD back by helping others,'' said Jenike, a psychiatrist with Harvard Medical School and Mass. General.

Bell, an afternoon host on KCBS-radio in San Francisco, said he mastered his obsessive behaviors by deciding he needed to share his story of success - even before he'd actually succeeded.

Choosing to help others was so motivating, Bell said, that he was finally able to take care of himself.

Though he's 13 years past the worst days of his disorder, Bell says it still helps him when he's faced with a compulsion to think: "how can avoiding this compulsion help others?'' That simple question allows him to resist the temptation to get lost in his own fears, says Bell, who used to be so afraid of polluting the world that he barely left the house.

He says it's more powerful for him to help people with obsessive-compulsive disorder than, say, to work at a food bank. "I think because it connects the dots better than anything else. It really reinforces that something constructive comes out of what you have gone through if you give back to somebody with that particular challenge,'' he said.

Bell is now in the process of setting up a website called the Choosing Greater Good Project, which will provide resources for people who want to help others with similar problems.

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, said he'd like to see doctors prescribe altruism to treat problems like depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It's not biologically possible, Keltner said, to be extremely anxious and extremely giving at the same time.

Being in a caring state of mind triggers the vagus nerve, which runs down the spinal cord and slows the heart rate - the opposite of the fight-or-flight system associated with anxiety and stress.

"When you give, you're getting dopamine . . . and the vagus nerve is firing,'' said Keltner, author of Born to be Good: the Science of a Meaningful Life. "These are all fundamental systems in the body that we need to attend to for helping people in need. And ourselves.''