Helping Others Helps You

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Helping others is good for your health. It is healthy to forget yourself on a regular basis and concentrate on helping others. Volunteer to care for someone, but limit it to the extent that you can handle without taxing yourself. A study which involved 2,700 residents in Tecumseh, Michigan, observed that residents who volunteered their time for community organizations were two and a half times less likely to die from any diseases compared to those who did not volunteer. Helpers also reported that they had fewer colds, headaches, backaches, and even relief from the pain of chronic diseases, such as ulcers, asthma,, arthritis and lupus. In addition to fewer illnesses, a large number of volunteers reported that they were eating better and sleeping better since they started volunteering time to their community.

Just by watching a film of Mother Teresa loving and helping the dying children of Calcutta, viewers experienced a temporary boost in immune system. True well-being is achieved when we act on an honestly felt compassion for others; helping may be as important to our health as regular exercise and proper nutrition.

Helpers experience pure Joy out of helping, a "helper's high." In a national survey, conducted by Allan Luks, involving 3,300 volunteers from all fields, nearly 95% of the volunteers reported that personal helping on a regular basis gives them immediate pleasurable sensation. Helper's high consists of physical and emotional sensations, including a sudden warmth, a surge of energy, excitement, and joy immediately after helping. The sense of teamwork and connection with fellow helpers is a powerful bonus in addition to the benefits of performing good deeds.

"Helper's high" is often followed by feelings of increased self worth, calm, and relaxation.  Such feelings last longer than the "helper's high". Nearly 80% of those surveyed reported that the good feelings would return, though in diminished intensity, when the helping act was remembered. Nine out of ten felt that they were healthier than others of their age group. Volunteers, who later on get to see and witness the personal reactions of the person they are helping, are more likely to report helper's high, increased self-esteem, and reduced signs of stress.

Helping provides a healthy distraction. Focusing on others takes us away, at least temporarily, from the hassles of work, finances, or family troubles. Let's not ignore the fact that we get a special kind of attention from those we help. It makes us feel that we matter to someone. Helping can also block pain because our attention is shifted from personal pain to helping others. Helping others improves our outlook and enhances our sense of gratitude for what we have. 

In one survey, those who volunteered once a week were ten times more likely to report good health than those who were once-a-year helpers. A good rule of thumb is to devote the same amount of time to helping as one would give to other healthy habits like exercise and meditation. Positive effects of helping others were reported by people who only volunteered two hours per week.

Helping because you have to can result in increased stress and even illness. We do much better when we help out of our free choice rather than out of a sense of obligation or necessity. Helping others can be an unbearable burden if you do it alone, or if you feel unappreciated for your effort. Instead of the helper's high and sense of well-being, you may begin to feel sick or stressed out. Watch out for feelings of being overwhelmed by the needs of another person, which produce a sense of helplessness, loss of control, resentment, guilt, and stress. Pay attention to your own needs. Take a break when you need it. Eat nutritious foods that you like. Get adequate rest and exercise. Have fun while helping others. Recognize your limits. Learn to set boundaries on how much time you can spend and when you can be available.

If you concentrate on whether your efforts will truly change someone, you are setting yourself up for a "helper's low" rather than a "helper's high." Just focus on the act of helping and don't worry too much about the outcome. Leave the outcome of your efforts to the forces higher than yourself Look for little opportunities to give without expecting something in return, and you may get the full return on your efforts.

Return to Self Help 

Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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