Altruism protects against physical pain

Those who act unselfishly experience less pain

"Nobody is useless in this world who lightens someone else's burden", recognized the important English writer Charles Dickens, who wrote works such as "Oliver Twist" and "A Christmas Story". A current study has now shown that selfless action is not only good for others. A Chinese research team showed that people who often act altruistically experience less pain.

In two pilot studies, Peking University researchers found that people who often act altruistically experience less pain under the same conditions than people who act selfishly. Brain activity scans also indicated that altruistic-thinking individuals increasingly use certain brain regions that could be responsible for the reduced sensation of pain. The results were recently published in the renowned journal "PNAS".

Altruists think otherwise

The team at Peking University showed to 287 people that selflessly acting people have a reduced sensation of pain compared to people who mainly act selfishly. Brain activity scans were carried out on the participants, which revealed that altruistic-thinking people increasingly use the ventral region of the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain. The researchers suspect that the reduced sensation of pain is related to this region of the brain.

Kindness, helpfulness and gratitude

Helpfulness promotes health: This is also the finding of the renowned Mayo Clinic in the USA. In an independent research project, the scientists showed that actions that result from friendliness, helpfulness and gratitude have a positive effect on your own health.

Immediate effects through altruistic action

While most of the previous theories and research on this topic have focused more on the long-term and indirect benefits of altruistic trading, the latest Beijing study shows that participants immediately benefited from selfless acts. Various scenarios were examined in the study. It was shown, for example, that the participants in a voluntary blood donation felt less pain when taking their blood than people who had to take a blood sample. In another test, people showed less sensation of cold temperatures when exposed to community service.

Altruism can relieve cancer pain

Another trial showed that cancer sufferers experience less chronic pain when they participate in actions that benefit others. In a control group that performed the same work for their personal benefit, the pain was reduced by around 60 percent less.

Acting sensibly seems to protect against pain

There was another experiment: Participants were asked to donate money to orphans. They then had to evaluate how helpful they thought the donation would be. Her brain was then scanned with an MRI while receiving an electric shock. The astonishing result showed that those who thought the donation was sensible responded less strongly to the pain from the electric shock than those who did not give money or considered the donation to be senseless.

New approaches to pain therapies

According to the researchers, more research is needed to understand why altruistic action is associated with less pain. Nevertheless, medicine should consider using the findings for current behavioral therapies to treat pain. It seems like our brains reward us with the body's "feel good chemicals" if we help others and don't ask for anything in return. (vb)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek


  • Yilu Wang, Jianqiao Ge, Hanqi Zhang: Altruistic behaviors relieve physical pain, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019,

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