Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

How Helping Others Can Get Us Through Tough Times: An Interview with Stephen G. Post, PhD

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


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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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment JiLLB

    You’ve done it again, Terese. This article really hit home! For the past several years, I’ve not been able to get out of the house due to agoraphobia and look for opportunities to do something from home. It’s when the depression is at its worst that I have no motivation, but probably when it’s most needed.

    “But we do have to be careful not to become overwhelmed, and we need to draw some limits.”

    This line struck home in a big way. I will do and do and do and not know until after the fact that I got overwhelmed (much of the time). While it’s not necessarily volunteer work, it is an issue. I did it when I was employeed, I do it with a project… like you say, Terese, you’re a bigtime people pleaser (is it “stage 4″ because I can’t remember).

    This is a great article – a great interview :-)

    I hope you’re doing ok. You mentioned (if memory serves) that you were slipping a bit. I hope you were able to use some of the amazing coping skills you’ve learned to keep yourself afloat!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Lisa

    Therese, I’m not sure but I think I got my sign from St. Therese today. I was cleaning the bureau to take my mind off of things and I opened this blue plate holder and there was this little prayer card of St. Therese in it. On the back of it was a single pink rose. I’m not sure if there was a way to directly email you, but I wanted to show you it.
    Thank you again saying for sending the prayers and to hold on. I am hanging in there and trying my best.

    I also think you should write a book about St. Therese touching the lives of others just as she did with yours. It can be called, “Being Graced by the Little Flower: True Accounts of Being Touched by Her Shower of Roses.

    Thank you again for caring. The fact that you reached out to me I did not feel by myself and it came on a day I was not in a good place.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cb

    Spot on! Everything Dr. Post spoke to resonates with me. Problem is, I have to be reminded of these truths over and over, ad naseum. I sometimes feel like such a block-head because I’ll take a day or two to reflect on the misfortunes that others face and plot a plan (sometimes practical, sometimes just in my imagination)to lend some help, only to wind up back at my own (real & imagined)disappointments. Oh, and I make a hobby out of ruminating so the cycle seems to be never-ending. Complicating matters is bipolar disorder and the mania-fueled pursuit of all I desire, but can’t always find.

    I love people and I have held a myriad of jobs includind teaching grade school age kids, teens and adults. I was once told that I have a servant’s heart. I think that assessment is accurate. But I need continuous reminders that the earth doesn’t spin on its axis just for me.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Cheryl

    My therapist is encouraging me to find someplace to volunteer my time. I am unemployed, thank you enconomy for delivering my worst nightmare to me! I had volunteered at a hospital when I first lost my job but I felt out of place and never got comfortable even though I was there for 7 months. I am very lonely at home all day and need a place to go to help others, but I am also emotionally fragile at times and I have no clue where to go or where I would feel like I am competent and belong. I’ve considered donating my HR skills to a non-profit because I need to feel competent but my therapist wants me to help people and not do it from my comfort zone of skill set. I ultimately do not know where to go or what to do – I have the time and the willingness but no idea where to reach out. I am really struggling with this – does anybody have an idea of where to look?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Julia

    So happy to read this post today, as it certainly hit home with me and validated (again) what I’ve been through in the past year. I had so much change at once (my husband and I both retired from our jobs, youngest child left home for college,sold our home and moved from our community of 30 years,mother -in-law in final stages of Alzheimer’s, husband is 10 years into Parkinson’s, menopause hit me hard, and the list goes on). The point is I fell into a serious depression and thought I could fix it myself through prayer, meditation, exercise and a positive attitude…sound familiar Therese? Long story short, I am much much better and settled in my new city which I love! I got the help I needed and am feeling my way through to a new life. I do volunteer work with hospice and United Way and I am loving that but also making sure I take plenty of time “to just be” after such a year of drama and change. I am first on my list for a change and everybody is the better for it.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Philip

    I got your book from Amazon a few days ago and have been enjoying reading it. I’m 59, have been on antidepressants 30 years and abused alcohol before that. It is encouraging to read of your battle and success. For me, exercise helps when I do it, but it’s kind of a catch-22 when I don’t: I don’t feel good enough to exercise so it can’t help me feel better. I’m a bit concerned about my meds too; I’m on Cymbalta and Welbutrin which I usually think is working pretty well but sometimes I wonder. Last year I was doing literacy tutoring, teaching an adult to read, until we moved away. Helping others is indeed a big help to one’s mental status. I just want to thank you for the book and the blog and the encouragement they bring: thanks!

  • Marquita Herald

    Great message and one that is very close to my heart. A few years ago as I was going through a difficult time I decided what I needed to do was get my mind off my own troubles and find a way to help others. I responded to an ad for volunteers needed at the local food bank. Turns out they were going through some pretty desperate times of their own and the next thing I knew I was chairing a county food drive! It was the most amazing experience … so much so that I went on to chair 2 more county food drives and have since served on the boards of half a dozen local nonprofits. That one decision to reach outside myself literally changed my life!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Debra

    This was so helpful to hear that the feelings I had were not just my individual experience. We had to move from Canada to the US for a job after a long unemployment. I tried to say that it was for good, but I felt a deep depression nonetheless. The only colors I could paint my new walls were blue! Thank you for sharing the psychology of loss and that of helping others.

  • Philip

    I wonder if any of you posting comments on this blog also participate in the BeliefNet Beyond Blue discussion group. I would like to participate in an online depression support group, and this link looks like a good place for one except it needs more current activity. Please consider taking a look at it.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Philip
  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cc

    What a great blog you have. Thanks!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment David Kent

    Yes I got my lover back through Dr Wicca.. My wife left me six months ago. The longer she’s gone, the more I see what a jerk I was. At first, I blamed her for leaving. I told her she was ‘wrong’. In fact, I slapped Scripture on her, trying to guilt-induce her any way I could. My anger only pushed her farther away. I can’t believe the way I acted. My wife gave me chance after chance, and I ignored her.

    I contacted Dr Wicca and within a few minutes of speaking with him, I realized that Dr Wicca was the one person whom I could completely trust.
    Within 48 hours, My wife is back in my life. I can’t thank him enough and I will use Dr. Wicca again for further work in the future. You can contact him on his personal cell# +2348097350565.

    David Kent from USA.

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