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The Hidden Gifts of Helping

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Although we may have learned to think of ourselves as primarily rational and even selfish beings, science tells us that this simply isn’t so.”

The Hidden Gifts of Helping


Not too long ago, we thought of the body as a machine and the brain as some sort of computer that ran the show. But much recent research indicates that the brain is essentially a social organ with its cells and pathways wired for empathy, for experiencing the joys and sufferings of others as if they were our own. Our brain, our hormones, and our immune system are an intimately related care-connection system. Of course this system can be turned off by fear, vengefulness, anger, and other emotional states, but the care-connection system reasserts itself when these other states subside. The role of spirituality at its best is to gain self-control over the destructive emotions and to displace them in favor of sincere love of others. Spiritualities include sophisticated techniques of prayer, meditation, visualization, and positive affirmation that sway the balance toward living better.

The workings of this care-connection system are perhaps best described by the remarkable researcher Stephanie Brown, a colleague of mine at Stony Brook. According to a new theory that she and her father, psychology professor Michael Brown, reported in Psychological Inquiry, “The same hormones that underlie social bonds and affiliation, such as oxytocin, also stimulate giving behavior under conditions of interdependence.”

This action helps link those whose survival depends on one another.1

Giving and helping are wired into us, and our brains typically reward us with feelings of joy and satisfaction. How many times have people said that doing things to help others “just feels good,” or that “I get as much out of it as they do”? Researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke have worked with the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Aging on a collaborative project titled Cognitive and Emotional Health Project – The Healthy Brain. The goal was to uncover the neurology of unselfish actions that reach out beyond kin to strangers. Nineteen subjects were each given money and a list of causes to which they might contribute. Functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed that making a donation activated the mesolimbic pathway, the brain’s reward center, which is responsible for dopamine-mediated euphoria.2 When people do “unto others” in kindness, it lights up the primitive part of the brain that also lets us experience joy. This is good news: even contemplating doing good for others goes with, rather than against, a big portion of the grain of human nature.

This system is deeply integrated into the human brain and human nature. Although we may have learned to think of ourselves as primarily rational and even selfish beings, science tells us that this simply isn’t so. It seems we humans are as much homo empathens as we are homo sapiens! I strongly believe that in the next five years, most of the benefits of self-giving love and helping behaviors will be understood as a basic biological system. When this system is active, we tap into something vital that allows us to flourish.

Fortunately, activating it is easy: we just have to help someone. In a 2010 survey of 4,500 American adults, a good majority of those who had volunteered during the past year – a full 68 percent – reported that volunteering made them feel physically healthier.3 In addition,

  • 89 percent reported that “volunteering has improved my sense of well-being”
  • 73 percent agreed that “volunteering lowered my stress levels”
  • 92 percent agreed that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life
  • 72 percent characterized themselves as “optimistic,” compared to 60 percent of nonvolunteers
  • 42 percent of volunteers reported a “very good” sense of meaning in their lives, compared to 28 percent of nonvolunteers.

Service is a key solution to many of the challenges facing this nation – not only new challenges brought on by the volatile economy but also the education, health, and environmental challenges we continue to confront. Fortunately, Americans are responding to these needs. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, key findings on national volunteerism for 2009 include the following heartening statistics.4

  • In the midst of a lingering recession, 63.4 million Americans (age sixteen and older) volunteered in 2009, an increase of almost 1.6 million since 2008. This is the largest single-year increase in the volunteering rate and the number of volunteers since 2003.
  • In 2009, the volunteering rate went up from 26.4 percent in 2008 to 26.8 percent.
  • In 2009, volunteers dedicated almost 8.1 billion hours to volunteer service.

The challenges we face are bringing out the better side of people and slowly centering our attention on the things that matter most. Scientific investigations tell us that relatively modest activities – a few hours of volunteering once a week or perhaps a “random act of kindness” a few days a week – help us live longer, healthier lives as they stimulate a shift from anxiety, despair, or anger to tranquility, hope, and warmth.

This feeling of elevation is sometimes described by psychologists as the “helper’s high.” At the psychological level, the helper’s high was first carefully described by Allen Luks, who in 1991 surveyed thousands of volunteers across the United States. He found that people who helped other people reported better health than peers in their age group. This health improvement was set in motion when volunteering began. Helpers reported a distinct positive physical sensation associated with helping: approximately half of the sample said they experienced a “high” feeling, 43 percent felt stronger and more energetic, 28 percent felt warm, 22 percent felt calmer and less depressed, 21 percent experienced greater feelings of self-worth, and 13 percent experienced fewer aches and pains.

Most commentators on the helper’s high believe that prosocial giving to others triggers the brain to release its natural opiates, the endorphins, but there is probably a lot more to this, including the involvement of such hormones as oxytocin, which causes the sense of calm in the helper’s high.

Now, obviously not every helper feels this euphoria, so the glass is only half full. What can we do to fill it up more? Joseph E. Kahne and colleagues completed a survey of five hundred teenagers in the eleventh and twelfth grades and followed them for three years after graduation. Students found volunteering more meaningful and uplifting when they had forums in school that allowed them to talk about the social issues they were grappling with, such as homelessness and illiteracy.5 Sincerity and good mentoring make a difference in the quality of any volunteer experience. Volunteers need to be well managed in meaningful venues that allow them to use their talents and strengths in order to be more effective, and it is important to let them select their preferred areas for volunteering.6 There is a lot we do not yet understand about how best to organize, acknowledge, celebrate, and reward volunteers.7

The Helper Therapy Principle

I first heard of something like helper therapy from my Irish mother, Molly Magee Post. When I complained of feeling bored as a child, she told me, “Stevie, why don’t you just go out and do something for someone?” Notice that she did not say, “Stevie, go read a book” or “Stevie, go clean up your room.” I read a lot anyway and kept an orderly room. So I would head across the street and give old Mr. Muller a hand raking leaves or help Mr. Lawrence fix his mast. It always felt pretty good.

My mother’s advice, which I have shared with others many times, turned out to be more fundamental to the course of my life than she had probably imagined. In fact, it has been documented that volunteering in adolescence enhances social competence and self-esteem, protects against antisocial behaviors and substance abuse, and protects against teen pregnancies and academic failure.8 Simple chores – helping with the dishes, making one’s bed, helping cook meals, doing laundry, and the like – are daily practices that make helping second nature. This kitchen table wisdom is the basis of scouting, Montessori schools, healthy families, and flourishing communities.

And, once again, science supports what we already know to be true. Adolescents who are giving, particularly boys, have a reduced risk of depression and suicide.9 And giving during the high school years predicts good physical and mental health more than fifty years later, according to an ongoing study that began in the 1920s.10

The helper therapy principle can be a big part of the lives of recovering alcoholics. Both Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith, the eventual cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous in the mid-1930s, emphasized that the principle of alcoholics helping other alcoholics is, along with spirituality, the key to sobriety. The idea that helping others might have special therapeutic value was best articulated three decades later in 1965, in a widely cited article by Frank Riessman, the distinguished social psychologist and founder of Social Policy.11 Riessman defined helper therapy on the basis of his observations of Alcoholics Anonymous and offshoot self-help groups that adopted AA’s twelve-step program – groups that have involved hundreds of millions worldwide. Riessman observed that the act of helping another often heals the helper more than the recipient. In the early 1970s, discussion of the helper therapy principle appeared in American Journal of Psychiatry. Scientists were observing the health benefits to helpers in a variety of contexts—including teens tutoring younger children.12

Recovering alcoholics since 1935 have practiced the twelve steps and noted the benefits to their lives. But the first empirical support for the link between helping others and staying sober first appeared only in 2004 in the work of investigator colleague Maria Pagano.13 Using data from Project MATCH, one of the largest clinical trials in alcohol research, Pagano and her colleagues found that alcoholics who helped others during chemical dependency treatment were more likely to be sober in the following twelve months. Specifically, 40 percent of those who helped other alcoholics avoided taking a drink in the twelve months that followed a three-month chemical dependency treatment period, in comparison to 22 percent of those not helping. In two subsequent investigations, researchers demonstrated that 94 percent of alcoholics who began to help other alcoholics at any point during the fifteen-month study period continued to help – and they became significantly less depressed.14

The use of the AA model by more than three hundred offshoot organizations – such as Al-Anon (for families and friends of alcoholics), Alateen (for children of alcoholics), and Narcotics Anonymous – is one of the great success stories of our modern times. Members use the power of their own experience and of their own wounds to lighten the burdens of others and heal themselves in the process. They feel redeemed through helping others, move past shame, and accept new self-identities as role models. They are also attacking the narcissistic roots of their alcoholism. The benefits they receive in regard to an elevated recovery rate are most potent when they are helping other alcoholics, but the benefits are nevertheless considerable when they report significant helping outside of AA.

Helping Others Improves Mental and Emotional Health

The benefits of helping others who have the same chronic problem as oneself extend to mental illnesses. In 2006, a major report on curing mental illness emphasized the role of helping others through involvement in mutual help groups. The report recommends this activity to people recovering from illnesses as disparate as depression and schizophrenia.15

This recommendation is encouraging, but it’s something mental health professionals have long known. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the “moral treatment” era in the American asylums of the 1830s and beyond. Then, individuals suffering from “melancholy” (what we would call depression) and other ailments were directly engaged in helping activities for others in their therapeutic communities. Dr. Thomas Scattergood, a Philadelphia Quaker with a benevolent last name, and his colleague Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride understood that contributing prosocially to a community of fellow sufferers would help the melancholic helper. The concept of helping others was put into practice as a treatment module by Kirkbride and other founders of the American Psychiatric Association and has a place in the origins of American psychiatry.16 The idea of the benefits of helping cannot be separated from the Quaker emphasis on benevolence.

Today, the therapeutic treatment of helping others is embodied by many mental health communities, such as the International Center for Clubhouse Development (ICCD) model, founded on the belief that recovery from serious mental illness should not be based on marginalization of the sufferer but instead “must involve the whole person in a vital and culturally sensitive community. A Clubhouse community offers respect, hope, mutuality, and unlimited opportunity to access the same worlds of friendship, housing, education, and employment as the rest of society.”17 This model originated from the Foundation House in 1948 in New York City, and today there are more than two hundred ICCD clubhouses thriving throughout the nation as well as abroad.

Helping Others Relieves Stress and Soothes Negative Emotions

Some of us get so steeped in the ideologies of individualism that we become caught up in the idea that it is a bad idea to help others freely; this is just “a sucker’s game,” a “do-gooder’s foolishness,” an altruist’s “self-neglect,” or a way of encouraging “irresponsibility” in those whom we assist. This idea that helping others freely is for suckers does great harm to those who think this way, inhibiting the very capacity for self-giving that can bring them inner freedom and joy. I see it influencing the lives of those adolescents who seem to resist any display of kindness and are locked into an image of tough and clench-fisted indifference. These people are missing the best things in life. This crazy dualism of “I” versus “you” makes no sense.

Increasingly, the scientists are catching up with the giver’s glow. The results of a recent bereavement study by my colleague Stephanie Brown and her husband, Dylan Smith, showed that people with a heightened stress response recovered from depressive symptoms more quickly if they helped others. I have seen this often, so I was not surprised by the findings, but it’s always nice when science backs up what you know to be true. They also are working on research showing that dialysis patients who engage in helping behaviors experience less depression than those who do not.

Giving may be useful in ameliorating depression because it allows positive emotions like concern and compassion to push aside negative ones like hostility and bitterness, which take a toll on health. Science has long known about the connections between Type A personality, hostility, health problems, and early death.19 Many have concluded that hostility is truly a health-damaging personality trait. Most researchers explain the increased mortality in hostile individuals from coronary disease and cancer on elevated levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) and a related lowering of the immune response, perhaps mediated by lowered serotonin levels.20

Although some studies have shown that certain kinds of low-level stressors may be beneficial to human health, the relationship between excessive stress and disease has been well documented. In response to such stressful emotions as rage or anger, the body secretes hormones that prepare it for physical exertion: the heart and lungs work faster, muscles tighten, digestion slows, and blood pressure goes up. These changes are good when we are running away from an attacker, but perpetually negative emotions eat away at us like acid burning metal. Negative feelings even slow down wound healing and are correlated with some forms of cancer.21

Helping Others May Help Us Live Longer

Longevity is the most studied physical health benefit derived from helping, and the findings are impressive. In a thirty-year study that began in 1956, Cornell University researchers followed 427 wives and mothers living in upstate New York. Women who volunteered at least once a week were found to live longer and have better physical functioning independent of baseline health status, number of children, marital status, occupation, education, or social class.22

But this is far from the only study. In their 2005 analysis of a nationally representative sample of 7,527 older adults from the Longitudinal Study of Aging, researchers Harris and Thoresen from the Center for Health Care Evaluation at Stanford University found that frequent volunteering was linked to longevity and that giving to others – even if you’re older, without friends and family, and in less than ideal health – can help you live longer.23 They built on the work of Marc Musick, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas, and colleagues, who reported in the 1999 Journal of Gerontology that according to his research on elderly volunteers, “simply adding the volunteering role was protective of mortality.”24

Doug Oman, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, studied more than two thousand elderly residents in Marin County, California, over a seven-year period beginning in the early 1990s. He found that those who volunteered for two or more organizations were 63 percent less likely to die during the study period than those who did not volunteer at all. When Oman controlled for various factors – age, gender, number of chronic conditions, physical mobility, exercise, self-rated general health, health habits (such as smoking), social support (including marital status and religious attendance), and psychological status (for example, the presence of depressive symptoms) – he still found that the volunteers were 44 percent less likely to die during the time of the study than nonvolunteers. As it turns out, the likelihood of death during this period was more affected by helpfulness than it was by physical mobility, regular exercise, or weekly attendance at religious services.“If the present results are sustained,” Oman and his colleagues concluded, “then voluntariness has the potential to add not only quality but also length to the lives of older individuals worldwide.”25

It truly is better to give than to receive!


Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Hidden Gifts of Helping by Stephen G Post. Copyright © 2011 by Stephen G. Post.


Notes

1. “Selfish Genes Make Humans Selfless, New Theory Suggests,” University of Michigan News Service, July 24, 2006.

2. Jorge Moll and others, "Human Fronto-Mesolimbic Networks Guide Decisions about Charitable Donation," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103, no. 42 (2006): 15623–628.

3. The Do Good Live Well Survey was released by United Healthcare and VolunteerMatch. For more information, visit www.VolunteerMatch.org.

4. U.S. volunteering results for all fifty states and nearly two hundred cities can be found at VolunteeringinAmerica.gov, which hosts the most comprehensive set of statistics on volunteering available.

5. Joseph E. Kahne and S. Sporte, “Developing Citizenship,” American Educational Research Journal 45, no. 3 (2008): 738–766.

6. See www.universalgiving.org.

7. See Alina Tugend, “The Benefits of Volunteerism, If the Service Is Real,” New York Times, July 31, 2010.

8. Heather Johnston Nicholson, Christopher Collins, and Heidi Holmer, “Youth as People: The Protective Aspects of Youth Development in After-School Settings,” Annals of the American Academy of PoIitica1 and Social Science 591, no. 1 (2004): 55–71.

9. Peter L. Benson, E. Gil Clary, and Peter C. Scales, “Altruism and Health: Is There a Link During Adolescence?” in Altruism and Health: Perspectives from Empirical Science, ed. Stephen Post (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

10. See Micelle Dillon and Paul Wink, In the Course of a Lifetime (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

11. Frank Riessman, “The ‘Helper’ Therapy Principle,” Social Work 10, no.2 (1965): 27–32.

12. G. A. Rogeness and R. A. Badner, “Teenage Helper: A Role in Community Mental Health,” American Journal of Psychiatry 130 (1973): 933–936.

13. Maria E. Pagano, Karen B. Friend, J. Scott Tonigan, and Robert L. Stout, “Helping Other Alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous and Drinking Outcomes: Findings from Project MATCH,” Journal Studies in Alcoholism 65, no. 6 (2006): 766–773.

14. Maria E. Pagano and others, “Helping Others and Long-Term Sobriety: Who Should I Help to Stay Sober?” Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly 27, no. 1 (2009): 38–50. Maria E. Pagano, Sarah E. Zemore, Casey C. Ondor, and Robert L. Stout, “Predictors of Initial AA-Related Helping: Findings from Project MATCH,” Journal of Studies in Alcohol and Drugs 70, no. 1 (2009): 117–125.

15. New York State Office of Mental Health, “Self-Help and Peer Support,” 2006.

16. Nancy Tomes, The Art of Asylum-Keeping: Thomas Story Kirkbride and the Origins of American Psychiatry (Philadelphia: University of Pennlsylvania Press, 1984).

17. Personal interview with a representative of the International Center for Clubhouse Development; see also “Mission,” www.iccd.org/mission.html.

18. Stephanie L. Brown, Robert M. Brown, James S. House, and Dylan M. Smith, “Coping with Spousal Loss: The Potential Buffering Effects of Self-Reported Helping Behavior,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 34 (2008): 849–861.

19. Larry Scherwitz and others, “Type A Behavior, Self-Involvement, and Coronary Atherosclerosis,” PsychosomaticMedicine 45, no. 1 (1983): 47–57.

20. See Redfield Williams and Virginia Williams, Anger Kills: Seventeen Strategies for Controlling the Hostility That Can Harm Your Health (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994).

21. Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser and others, “Hostile Marital Interactions, Proinflammatory Cytokine Production and Wound Healing,” Archives of General Psychiatry 62, no. 12 (2005): 1377–84; see also Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser and Cancer, Annuls of Oncology 13 (2002): 165–69.

22. Phyllis Moen, Donna Dempster-McClain, and Robin M. Williams, “Social Integration and Longevity: An Event History Analysis of Women’s Roles and Resilience,” American Sociological Review 54, no. 4 (1989): 635–647.

23. Alex H. Harris and Carl E. Thoreson, “Volunteering Is Associated with Delayed Mortality in Older People: Analysis of the Longitudinal Study of Aging,” Journal of Health Psychology 10, no. 6 (2005): 739–752.

24. Marc A. Musick, A. Regula Herzog, and James S. House, “Volunteering and Mortality Among Older Adults: Findings from a National Sample,” Journal of Gerontology 54B, no. 3 (1999): S173–S180. See also Marc A. Musick and John Wilson, “Volunteering and Depression: The Role of Psychological and Social Resources in Different Age Groups,” Social Science and Medicine 56, no. 2 (2003): 259–269. See also Mark A. Musick and John Wilson, Volunteers: A Social Profile (Bloomlngton: Indiana University Press, 2008).

25. Doug Oman, Carl E. Thoreson, and Kay McMahon, “Volunteerism and Mortality Among Community-Dwelling Elderly,” Journal of Health Psychology 4, no. 3 (1999): 301–316.

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  • Anonymous Icon

    ResurrectingPella Apr 11, 2011

    It's interesting to consider how giving has changed over the past hundred years or so. Where charity used to be direct and personal, we now rely mostly on third parties to collect money and unwanted goods from us and deliver them to the needy -- whether forced wealth redistribution by the government (welfare, social security, etc.) or automated payroll deductions to organizations like the Red Cross. By eliminating the face-to-face aspect of giving, are we in fact contributing to the same social problems we're trying to solve through our giving?

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