The Helping-Health-Happiness Link


Many of us feel grouchy or under the weather at one time or another, due to stress, finances, relationships or things are just not going the way we would like.  When we feel this way, there is one solution to pump us back up and bring a warm fuzzy feeling to our heart.  Try going out and helping someone, and if you already volunteer on a regular basis, why not helping a person who you have never met or an organization that you may not even have thought would need help. 

Recent studies have shown that people who volunteer live longer, suffer less chronic pain, have bolstered immune systems, are more likely to recover from addiction, and experience an in-the-moment sense of calm the same way  that  people experience during and after exercise.  Scientists have yet to fully understand what the physiological underpinnings are of such health benefits, but early studies credit a cascade of neurobiological changes that occur as we reach out to help a loved one, or (in some cases) even cut a check to a stranger in need.

Could generosity be the missing, often overlooked ingredient to a prescription for better health?  Perhaps, says Post, author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping: How the Power of Giving, Compassion and Hope Can Get Us Through Hard Times.  “This is a young science, but what we have begun to discover is that there is something going on, physiologically, in this process of helping others that seems to make people feel happier and report greater health.

Helping Hands Live Longer

We’ve all felt that blush of inner warmth we get after we bring a plate of healthful, steaming food to a sick relative, volunteer to read to kids at a local preschool or help sort donations for a shelter.

There was a 2010 survey of 4,500 Americans by United Healthcare, 68 percent of those that volunteered in the previous year reported that doing it made them feel physically healthier; 73 percent noted that it lowered their stress levels.   Twenty-nine percent of volunteers who suffered from a chronic illness claimed that giving of their time helped them to better manage the illness.

Additional studies by researchers at Boston College found that when chronic pain sufferers volunteered to help others with similar conditions, they saw their own pain and depression levels decrease.  At least seven studies have shown that people who regularly volunteer or give of themselves live longer-especially if they do it for genuinely altruistic reasons.

Try this as maybe a New Year’s resolution or if you have a chronic illness or just because you want to.  Give something away each day for 29 days.  Maybe you have a sick friend that needs your support, or if you see someone on the street that is stranded, help them out.  If there is someone who is homeless, offer them food or a cup of coffee.  By giving away something each day, you will notice a big difference in yourself physically and emotionally.

The Helper’s High

University of Michigan researcher Sara Konrath, Ph.D., has found that people engaging in acts that benefit others tend to have more calming hormones like oxytocin and progesterone coursing through their bodies.  If presented with a tough situation later, they are likely to react with a muted stress response, churning out fewer harmful stress hormones, such as cortisol and norepinephrine, and maintaining a calmer heart rate.  Konrath is studying whether altruistic thoughts and behavior might also be associated with an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.

“Just thinking about giving seems to have a beneficial physiological impact,” says Post.  For instance, a late 20th century study by then Harvard Psychologist David McClelland  found that when people watched a film about Mother Teresa’s work with oprhans in Calcutta, levels of immunoglobulin A (a marker of immune strength) shot up.  A more recent study found that people had higher levels of oxytocin in their blood after they had watched a moving film about an ill 4-year-old boy. 

Some research further suggests that the act of giving may release natural opiates, such as endorphins, into our system.  One landmark analysis of 1,700 people published in Psychology Today found that more than 68 percent experienced a “helper’s high” when physically helping another person, and 13 percent reported a decrease in aches and pains afterward.  It’s a concept that’s been documented many times since.

Meanwhile, new brain-imaging research has shown that acts of giving (including making a charitable donation) stimulate “reward centers” in the brain.  This includes the mesolimbic pathway by which natural dopamine is released, leaving us feeling euphoric.

On the flip side, “We found that people that are high in narcissism and low in empathy have higher cortisol levels,” advises Konrath.  “They walk around with high stress reactivity, which is really hard on the body.”

One other clear example of the health benefits of helping lies in the field of addiction research.  Recent studies by Maria Pagano, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, found that recovering addicts that volunteer to help other addicts stay sober are twice as likely to remain so themselves.  That’s because narcissism and self-absorption are often at the root of addiction, and generosity is an antidote to narcissism, Pagano says.

“The founders of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) figured it out,” Pagano continues, noting that a primary focus is on serving others.  “They figured out that this selfish root is there before the illness develops, and is sustained unless you treat it.  This is treatment; it is a way of continually weeding out the narcissism that made you sick.”

There is a long-held self-interested assumption about human nature that we help others only to help ourselves, but in truth, humans are biologically wired to be empathetic and generous.

So, why don’t we always stop to help?  Our anxious, busy, modern-day lives get in the way.  It could be that our natural, default state is to help when we see need, but what prevents that is our stress response.

Stress often gets in the way:  Maybe we pass a stranded motorist on the road, but drive on by because we’re on a timetable.  Perhaps our instinct is to offer a helping hand to a homeless person, but we fear that more will be asked of us than we are prepared to give.  We wish to bring a meal to a dying relative, but are apprehensive about what to say when we visit.

There are at least some of the calming hormones and quietness of heart often seen in habitual givers and may actually precede and enable their acts of selflessness by interrupting their potential stress response before it stalls their helping hand.  When you see helping going on, something beneficial has already happened to the giver’s body.

When givers perceive a need, instead of fretting and fleeing, they calmly stop to help.  In the end, everyone walks away feeling a little more generous.

Well, if you have read this far, I am grateful.  If you happen to try the experiment of giving away something each day for 29 days, I would love to hear your comments and your experiences.

Information in this post was partially provided by Lisa Marshall, a freelance health writer in Boulder, CO.

Hope all of you are having a peaceful and joyous day!

Peace, love and light to everyone.

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Peace, love, bliss kind reader

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