Why do People Help? Motivation and expectations

In several surveys helpers – whether professionals, volunteers or people who support others in their personal environment – expressed that helping makes them happier, more satisfied and content. At first sight, these statements seem to be astonishing.

Why should a behaviour that is not meant to give personal benefits make happy? Why should people invest time, energy or money for something from which they don’t profit directly?

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There are some aspects that should be considered when dealing with these questions:

A very important precondition of prosocial behaviour is the ability for empathy, which means that people are able to recognise, understand and sympathise thoughts, feelings, motives and problems of others. When individuals empathise with the troubles and sorrows of others they build up an interpersonal relationship. When they help and support their fellow human beings, they create safety, connection and closeness. These positive emotions are reflected back by the person they were helping. A confident relationship generates feelings of being needed and being an important part of a community – feelings that lead to happiness and satisfaction.
Self-efficacy is a psychological term introduced by the Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura. It indicates an individual’s belief in their ability to achieve goals. Bandura defines it as a personal judgment of “how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations”1.

People who help others experience feelings of success and self-achievement. They discover that they can affect situations and make a difference. These experiences increase self-esteem and self-efficacy. Helpers own a higher extent of confidence in their own abilities. Studies showed that higher self-efficacy is a protective factor against mental disorders, particularly depression.

Many helpers report that they experience meaning in their actions for others. According to the Austrian-American neurologist, psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl who developed the psychotherapeutical methodology Logotherapy the primary motivational force of an individual is to find a meaning in life. A lack or loss of meaning can cause severe personal crises and mental disorders. Frankl also found that prosocial acting and supporting others can help to avoid circling around the own life problems and existential frustrations and to find fulfilment.2
Stress Reduction
Neurobiologist studies found out that helping addresses the part of the brain that is in charge of pleasure and gratification. During actions of helping the organism secrets specific hormones, dopamine, serontonine and oxytoxin. These hormones are involved in physiological processes of joy, appreciation and connectedness. Additionally, prosocial acting reduces stress hormones. This can lead to the phenomenon that people supporting others have a lot of things to do but experience a lower stress level.




  1. Bandura, Albert (1982). “Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency”. American Psychologist. 37 (2): 122–147
  2. Frankl, Viktor (2006). Man’s search for Meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press