There's a reason all those stories make us happy. And finding a way to take action can make you feel even better.

August 31, 2017

We can't stop scrolling through photos of brave rescuers in Houston coming to the aid of stranded seniors, helpless pets, and even livestock trapped by Harvey's floodwaters. The images depicting the storm's wreckage are gut-wrenching. But seeing those helpful neighbors, volunteers, and aid workers in action has also been incredibly moving, at a time when we could all use a heavy dose of hope.

As we clicked on one heartwarming story after another, we began to wonder about the psychological effect they might have. Of course, doing good often leads to feeling good—and plenty of research suggests that people who volunteer their time live longer, happier, healthier lives. But could simply reading about good deeds have a similar positive impact?

There isn't any scientific research on the topic, but it's a reasonable enough idea, says clinical psychologist Susan Silk, PhD, a trainer for the American Red Cross and disaster mental health volunteer.

There's an opposite concept called vicarious trauma, she explains: When we're bombarded with bad news, "we see horrendous images and feel awful." (Studies have linked exposure to graphic, violent news reports to exacerbated feelings of stress, depression, even symptoms of PTSD.) Maybe when we read about the heroes in Houston we experience vicarious altruism, says Silk. In other words, if we see enough images depicting kind, selfless acts, we may begin to feel warm and giving ourselves.

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Neuroscience tells us that helping others triggers activity in the pleasure and reward centers of the brain (the same regions that light up when you enjoy a piece of chocolate, or have sex)—and kicks off a kindness-happiness-kindness feedback loop. We're motivated to do more good deeds in the future, to reap more fuzzy feelings.

Silk believes that feedback loop could be contagious. "We know big groups of people can get paralyzed into inaction–it's called the bystander effect. But what if big groups could be catalyzed into action by one person?" she says. Imagine, for example, you see someone picking up litter in the park; you may then feel compelled to do the same. If reading the Harvey rescue stories makes you feel good, maybe you'll be more likely to help others, too.

Of course, it's also possible that we're so moved by these reports because they're coming on the heels of the deeply distressing violence in Charlottesville earlier this month, Silk points out. "I think people are really receptive to this invigoration of the human spirit [after] the awful news we saw coming out of Virginia. The positive stories about neighbors helping neighbors in Texas remind us that it's not 'us against them.'"

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Of course, you're likely to feel even better if you take action yourself. And you don't have to fly to Houston to do so; an act of kindness can be as simple as sending a message to a friend in the area to let her know you're thinking of her, says Silk. If you need more ideas, check out this list of organizations that could use donations. "Feeling like you're a part of the solution is so much more empowering and therapeutic than wringing your hands."