Mahatma Gandhi once said that “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” I have benefited from that advice, for sure, especially in the months that I was crawling out of a very severe depression.
An expert on the perks that come with helping others is bestselling author Stephen G. Post, author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping: How the Power of Giving, Compassion, and Hope Can Get us Through Hard Times (Jossey-Bass, 2011). He is Professor of Preventive Medicine, Heard of the Division of Medicine in Society, and Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. Visit him on his website at http://www.stephengpost.com/.
I have the privilege of conducting an exclusive interview with him for the readers of Psych Central.
1. What are some of the proven health benefits of giving oneself to others?
Dr. Post: In light of our experience, I was struck by the 2010 Do Good Live Well Survey (www.VolunteerMatch.org) of 4,500 American adults. 41 percent of Americans volunteered an average of 100 hours a year. 68 percent of those who volunteered reported that it made them feel physically healthier; 89% that it “has improved my sense of well-bring” and 73% that it “lowered my stress levels.” Not bad! It worked for us.
The therapeutic benefits of helping others have long been recognized by everyday people. This concept was first formalized in a highly cited and often reprinted article by Frank Riessman that appeared in 1965 in Social Work. Riessman defined the “helper therapy” principle on the basis of his observations of various self-help groups, where helping others is deemed absolutely essential to helping oneself. These are grassroots groups that nowadays involve tens of millions of Americans.
As the saying goes, “if you help someone up the hill, you get closer yourself.” Whether the group is focused on weight loss, smoking cessation, substance abuse, alcoholism, mental illness and recovery, or countless other needs, a defining feature of the group is that people are deeply engaged in helping one another, and are in part motivated by an explicit interest in their own healing.
2. Why does something as simple as just thinking about helping offer physical benefits?
Dr. Post: In one famous study that has been replicated, study subjects are given a list of charities to which they might contribute. They are wearing an fMRI device that shows where the brain is active. When they decide to contribute to a particular item on the list and check a box next to it, the mesolimbic pathway lights up. This is area of the brain associated with joy and the release of feel good chemicals like dopamine.
This reward mechanism is deeply evolved, and is probably related to the fact that helping behavior is so important for the survival of groups. As Darwin pointed out, sympathy is evolutionarily advantageous because it is the basis of the altruism and prosocial helping that allows any tribe or group to flourish and survive. A lot of writing these days is on “group selection,” which explains human nature in ways that “individual selection” (the purely gladiatorial image of conflict between individuals) does not.
3. What are some ways that people can make helping others a daily practice?
Lots of things can help. Of course meditation, which deflects attention away from self . Adherence to moral principle, such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” can be important. Being part of a community of volunteers is useful, as is being around good role models and the right friends.
But more practically, we should focus our efforts on some needful group that we feel called toward. For me this is the deeply forgetful (people with dementia), and I have been involved in providing caregiver respire for many years. Also, we should help in a way that uses our talents and skills optimally. This allows people to feel effective.
As I give talks around the country to volunteer groups, however, I invariably encounter those numerous exceptions to the rule of a helper’s high. These are people who feel that their experiences as volunteers have been frustrating, and who do not last long in their efforts. I recently spoke with a group of “volunteer coordinators,” who often have full-time jobs working for hospitals, schools, hospices, and so many other organizations. The questions they ask are important:
* Are we caring for our volunteers?
* Are we acknowledging them thankfully and rewarding them?
* Are we preparing them well enough for their tasks?
* Are we giving each volunteer the right task?
* Are they flourishing and developing?
* Are we providing the right overall vision?
* Are we overwhelming any of them?
* Do they feel joyful in their activity?
* Are they doing this from passion?
* Are they being affirmed and told how valuable their actions are?
When these kinds of questions are ignored, and volunteers are not nurtured, many will come to see volunteerism as drudgery. This is the case especially when volunteers have been given poorly conceived tasks, have not received proper training, or are just filling up a slot without any thought given to their natural gifts and strengths. We need to ask who this volunteer is, and what special talents and gifts he or she brings to a wider effort. We need to ask volunteers if what they did felt meaningful, if they felt joyful and energized in their activities, and it they felt that it was a good fit for them.