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Beyond Blue

One of the most powerful tools in my recovery from depression has been the act of helping those who suffer the same kind of pain as I do, and those whose pain I can’t imagine, like mothers who have lost their children to illness, war, or some other thief. I wanted to explore this a bit more. So today I have the honor of interviewing 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 www.stephengpost.com/hiddengifts.

1. How can helping others get us through tough times in our own lives?

Dr. Post: Life’s valleys can bring out the better side of people and center attention on the things that matter most, like helping others.

Let me tell of my family’s recent valley. Perhaps we had grown too attached to place. For outsiders Cleveland may not have much curb appeal, but it is full of generous people proud to call it home. They were our friends over twenty years as my wife Mitsuko and I raised our two children there. We had grown accustomed to every landmark and to every neighbor’s voice and smile over the years. Then we experienced a jolting transition as my job disappeared in a university that simply asserted that it had no economic responsibilities for a tenured professor.

My wife, my then 13-year-old son, and I moved on as a family to Stony Brook, New York. The three greatest stressors in life are losing a loved one, a job, or a community. We lost two of three. We were stressed out. Drew was bitter about his disrupted friendships and schooling, and was my wife missed our old neighborhood terribly. Everything was different, nothing was familiar. Neighbors seemed a lot closer in Ohio. We had lots of family arguments and struggles. Human beings need place and community, though we can fool ourselves into thinking that we don’t. We had pulled up very deep roots and faced uncertainties that were not of our own choosing. In mid-life, such big moves open the door to psychological challenges. Depression rates rise as the loss of friends, acquaintances, and the background familiarity that we take for granted are felt more deeply; suicide rates increase and heart disease rises in middle-aged males.

We decided to cope by helping others. Mitsuko started tutoring children at a local grade school, and our son Drew started to be really helpful to new friends, and eventually to volunteer at the local hospital. I made every effort to serve others at work and in community service projects for people with dementia or autism. Helping others helps the helper. We cultivated this and talked about it daily. It kept our minds off ourselves and our losses, and it recreated support networks and relationships that we cherish. Everyone can do this, and it really makes a difference.

2. Why is the power of helping others even more important in a downturn economy?

Dr. Post: In these economic hard times, a lot of people are struggling with job loss. We have to be willing to go where the work is, and we face the stress of financial uncertainty daily.

So we move on, but much is left behind. We need to build new lives and overcome our grief. So helping others becomes really important in making these adjustments.

But in addition, with less money to spend, we are having to face up to the fact that consumerism did not bring us much happiness anyway. This is an opportunity to find new habits of the heart by helping others and creating more responsive communities, because people really are in need. We can turn our attention from the malls to the neighborhood, and in the process we can rebuild the sense of community that is so central to a happier life.

3. Are we hardwired to want to help people?

Yes, and this is clear in studies even of toddlers as young as a year old. But we are also evolved to be defensive and to preserve ourselves. Generally, being helpful to others is perfectly consistent with the flourishing of the self. But we do have to be careful not to become overwhelmed, and we need to draw some limits.

Our natural tendency to help others involves mirror neurons, oxytocin, endorphins, and a whole emerging biology of care and connection that we are only just beginning to fully appreciate.

The problem is that this natural capacity is easily overwhelmed by negative influences. Negative hierarchies in which harmful behaviors such as bullying are encouraged are a problem. So also are mistaken images of how to become happy – for example, though power or greed. Sometimes we dehumanize or demonize people who are not like us” and not part of our “in group.” Thus, there is a great deal of human arrogance and insularity that focuses our concerns only on those in our particular group. We need to work harder to focus on our shared humanity.

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