Helping others improves our own mental health
We were cruising along the coast of Ibiza. The sea was choppy, but visibility was good---and then we saw it. The other vessel had capsized; four people were in the water. We made all speed to the stricken vessel whilst signalling we were coming to render assistance. After numerous attempts we managed to right the other vessel and then accompanied them back to dry land.
Well, OK, maybe I have dramatised the situation a bit. We were actually in a pedalo about 5 meters off the coast of Ibiza and 4 mildly inebriated Irishmen capsized theirs, but we did help them out.
What makes us help our fellow man?
There are a number of theories and each probably plays a role to a greater or lesser extent in a particular situation.
The first may be simple fear of punishment for not helping. This may either be from the disapproval of others to actual laws. Some countries such as France and Russia have laws requiring people to lend assistance. I suspect my pedalo situation didn't fall under the remit of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, which requires ship captains to render assistance to others in distress, so that didn't play much of a part in my thinking. For some religious or philosophical codes of conduct may influence their actions.
There are evolutionary theories which see altruistic acts as not so selfless. In helping others we are simply expecting the other to return the favour later and groups who adopt this would tend to be more successful. It could also be form of display that the individual is so fit, strong or successful they can expend energy in helping others, a process called costly signalling.
Scanning studies have given a variety of results with some showing altruistic acts seem to be fairly 'hard wired' in our primitive brains and others suggesting we recruit areas involved in making assessments of what something 'costs' us.
Perhaps one of the most consistent findings is that helping others makes us feel good and is associated with improved mental well-being. Again this means the act isn't completely selfless, but it does explain how small acts of kindness on a daily basis can play a part in helping people with conditions such as depression.
So, go ahead: help people cross the road, buy them an ice cream and generally lavish them with your assistance. They'll feel better for it and you'll be happier. It's a good way to vaccinate against depression and anxiety!