Lend a Hand: How Helping Others Makes You Healthier

Lend a Hand: How Helping Others Makes You Healthier

Study after study confirms that altruism not only makes us happier but actually improves our health. Yet we see a stranger’s struggle and still pass by.

It was pouring rain at the bus stop, but under my supersize golf umbrella was an oasis of dryness. A man ran toward the stop. Then he stood next to me, head down and hands in pockets.

He obviously hadn’t checked the weather forecast that morning.

A part of me wanted to ask this stranger if he’d like to share my umbrella. Another part of me, however, didn’t want to stand that close to someone I didn’t know.

I argued with myself for seconds and then minutes. Eventually the bus came, and so did my guilt. As I sat on that bus and stared at that poor wet man, I couldn’t help but obsess. Here I was, a health journalist. If anyone knew about the healing powers of kindness, generosity, and altruism, it was me. On a spiritual level, I believed that world peace came from individual acts of kindness and generosity.

So why had I hoarded that umbrella? Why was my urge to help overpowered by my urge not to help?

And why do good people fail to do good?

According to Darwin’s theory of evolution and “the survival of the fittest,” the strongest survive to pass on their genes to the next generation. This is why even today our brains give us a rewarding hit of joy when we have sex (babies help a species survive) and devour high-calorie foods—today’s hedonistic delight once meant the difference between life and starvation.

It’s also why we feel good when we help others, says Dr. James Doty, the director of Project Compassion and a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford.

“Kindness is our genetic imperative that has been there for millions of years,” he says. “When you look at humans and animals, science shows that it is the kindest and most cooperative who survive long term. The cruel and ruthless might get a short-term gain, but cruelty and ruthlessness are not good solutions for a species to survive.”

Countless studies show that helping others boosts levels of happiness-producing brain chemicals, providing a powerful rush of emotional coziness known as “helper’s high.” And this generosity-induced mood boost is contagious, as Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor at the University of California at Riverside, found in a recent study of more than 100 workers at Coca-Cola. She designated some employees as givers, asking them to perform regular but anonymous act of kindness for three coworkers each. For 16 weeks, employees throughout the company kept track of their mood and stress levels. Both the givers and the receivers got happier, an effect that went viral. The generosity and happiness spread throughout the entire workplace, reaching employees who were not a part of the study and even to their friends and family who worked elsewhere.

“There was definitely a pay-it-forward effect,” says Lyubomirsky, author of The Myths of Happiness and The How of Happiness.

The mood boost, sense of connection, and stress reduction we get from giving translate into better health. Doing good can help you:

  • Use fewer painkillers. When patients with chronic pain help others, their pain diminishes.
  • Pump more iron. Study participants held a weight longer if doing so allowed them to raise money for a charity versus raising money for themselves.
  • Maintain sobriety. Alcoholics who help others are twice as likely to stay on the wagon.
  • Climb the corporate ladder. Altruistic teens were more likely to go on to graduate from college and have more successful careers than teens who were more self-focused.
  • Live longer. Doing good can have as big an impact on your health as eating healthful foods and exercising.

“Volunteering probably reduces mortality by a year and a half or possibly up to two years for people who are in their senior years,” says Stephen G. Post, a professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University School of Medicine and the author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping and Why Good Things Happen to Good People. “If you could put the benefits of helping others into a bottle and sell it, you could be a millionaire in a minute.”

So it’s not surprising that we often feel compelled to help others.

Here’s why we sometimes stand by and do nothing: That same neurological wiring that rewards us for doing good can also penalize us when our reptilian instincts sense we’re about to do good for the wrong people. For thousands of years, humans survived by forming tribes, alliances, and communities. They protected and nurtured their neighbors, but they pillaged, enslaved, and murdered outsiders.

As a result, our fight-or-flight response gets tripped whenever we’re around people we perceive as different—whether they are of a different race, class, nationality, or political party, says Doty. That’s why it’s easier for a white, liberal middle-aged mother like me to share her umbrella with another white, liberal middle-aged mother I’ve known for years. It’s much harder to do the same for a young Asian man I’ve never met.

We also hold back for other reasons, including the messages of capitalism. “We’re conditioned to think that life is about pursuing and getting what we want, but the secret to happiness actually lies in giving and not in getting,” says Christine Carter, a sociologist at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and the author of Raising Happiness.

Interestingly, much of what we assume will make us happy provides very little happiness at all. Research consistently shows that spending money on ourselves—whether it’s to get the newest smartphone or go on a great vacation—results in mild and fleeting happiness at best. But spending even a small amount on others produces a potent and lasting sense of joy.

The more rushed we feel, the less likely we are to make time for others, too. Yet making time for others paradoxically makes us feel as if we have more time for ourselves, according to a series of experiments by researchers at Yale, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania. In one of the tests, a group of college students was asked to spend the last 15 minutes of a class editing essays for at-risk high school students. The other students were let out of class 15 minutes early. The students who donated their time editing essays later reported feeling as if they had more free time, while the students who were given 15 minutes off felt much more time starved.

“People consistently expect to feel more stressed and more harried and have less time if they spend some of their precious hours on someone else,” says Zoë Chance, one of the study’s authors and an adjunct professor of marketing at the Yale School of Management. “In reality, people who spend time on others realize that they can get more done by doing something meaningful for someone else.”

Try these tips to harness the “helper’s high”:

  • Imagine helping someone else. Thinking about being good makes you feel good, and feeling good makes you more likely to want to do good, says Carter.
  • Maximize the high. Your brain gives you a bigger emotional reward if you help someone face-to-face than if you simply write a check and put it into an envelope, says Post. And the rush lasts longer if you summarize your helping experience, either by telling someone about it or writing about it in a journal.
  • Start small. Help just one person a day for five minutes a day.
  • Look for what you have in common. Perhaps you root for the same team, want the best for your kids, or ultimately want the same from life: happiness. “Once you notice a commonality, you can break down the barriers that separate you,” Doty says.

I like to think of goodness as a muscle that I strengthen with use. The more good I do, the better I feel. The better I feel, the more good I’m capable of doing. Sometimes it’s a “two steps forward, one step back” journey, but it gets easier and easier over time.

Not long ago, for instance, I was at the very same bus stop with the very same golf umbrella, and I didn’t just think about offering to share it with someone else.

I actually did it.

The stranger politely declined, pulling out his own umbrella from a briefcase. We shared a moment of connection.

And as I boarded the bus that day, I did so with a smile.

Alisa Bowman is a journalist and the author of Project: Happily Ever After.

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