Americans are pursuing happiness in really hard economic times. Life has become more challenging. The news is full of unsettling threats and disasters, and apocalyptic thinking thrives. In such times we must focus our lives on the one thing that matters most in a good life – contributing to the lives of others in a way that creates meaning, joy and hope for both those who give and those who receive. A loving and helpful life is more likely to be happier and healthier, especially when we have to cope with lost jobs, forced relocations, and the loss of relationships. This benefits of giving even in life’s difficult moments is the core theme of my The Hidden Gifts of Helping.

The sixteenth-century Hindu poet Tulsidas, as translated by Mohandas K. Gandhi, wrote, “This and this alone is true religion—to serve others. This is sin above all other sin – to harm others. In service to others is happiness. In selfishness is misery and pain.” The ninth-century sage Shantideva wrote, “All the joy the world contains has come through wishing the happiness of others.” Proverbs 11:15 reads, “those who refresh others will be refreshed.” Every major religion recommends the discovery of a deeper and more profound human nature, designated in various ways as the “true self.” In Acts 20, we find the words, “’Tis better to give than to receive,” and these echo down into the Prayer of St. Francis.

Now science says it’s so. But what findings are new and fresh?

Four of the Hottest New Research Findings

2010 was an exciting year for research on health, happiness and helping others. For starters, in the United Healthcare/Volunteer Match Do Good Live Well Study, an online survey of a national sample of 4,582 American adults 18 years and older, these remarkable facts stand out:

41% of us volunteer an average of 100 hours per year (69% of us donate money), 68% of volunteers agree that volunteering “has made me feel physically healthier,” 92% that it “enriches my sense of purpose in life,” 89% that it “has improved my sense of well-being,” 73% that it “lowers my stress levels,” 96% that it “makes people happier,” 77% that it “improves emotional health,” 78% that it helps with recovery “from loss and disappointment.”

Volunteers have less trouble sleeping, less anxiety, less helplessness & hopelessness; better friendships and social networks, and sense of control over chronic conditions. 25% volunteer through a workplace, and 76% of them feel better about their employer as a result

A cross-sectional survey of all 2,682 medical students attending seven U.S. medical schools in the spring of 2009 (across all four years) showed that students experiencing “burnout” had considerably reduced altruistic attitudes about physician responsibility to society, including less desire to provide care for the medically underserved. In another study, health professionals who volunteered to go on medical mission trips of two-weeks duration to South America scored lower on burnout scales following their return and continued to improve at a six-month follow-up, suggesting that they were able to reconnect with the gratification that comes from meaningful care of the needy.

On another major front, I have been involved in research of helping behaviors of alcoholics with a range of 16 to 25 years of continuous abstinence from alcohol. While helping others in general was rated as significant in contribution to sobriety, considerably higher benefits came from increased helping of other alcoholics in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous. Among those who helped other alcoholics, 40 percent avoided taking a drink in the year following treatment; only 22 percent of those not helping had the same outcome. Imagine, helping others doubles the likelihood of recovery from alcoholism in a one-year period! Much more is being discovered about “helper therapy” in this investigation.

Another exciting area of research that is rapidly evolving on reduced pain levels in persons who endorse behavioral and attitudinal aspects of altruism. Individuals suffering from chronic pain experienced decreased pain intensity, levels of disability, and depression when they began to serve as peer volunteers for others suffering from chronic pain. This suggests that the dynamic between helping actions and the experience of pain is considerable and requires further investigation. Pain is widely understood to be highly dependent on psychological states, both negative and positive. It is probably the case that helping others shifts the attention of person away from their pain, but there may also be a biochemistry involved that engages the endorphins, the body’s natural chemicals that blunt pain.

But don’t overdo it! Almost all the research presented here in this report is based on a threshold effect – a certain amount of self-giving activity shows benefits to the giver, but it is not the case that the more one gives the better one feels. It is clearly possible to get to a point where benefits stop or helping becomes stressful and potentially harmful.

I recommend that professionals who are routinely involved in helping others should abide by these principles:

  • Be empathic, but the patient’s suffering is not your suffering (let it go).
  • Realize that you cannot fix everything.
  • Entrust your friends and colleagues.
  • Step back from your initial emotional reactions.
  • Have some sort of “spiritual” practice.
  • Keep in mind the meaning and privilege of being a healer.
  • Have a balanced life.

Stephen G. Post is Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University and the author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping.

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