Unwrap the Hidden Gifts of Helping
Thanks to everyone who took part in today's tour!
It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Stephen G. Post is Professor of Preventive Medicine, Head of the Division of Medicine in Society, and Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. He was previously (1988-2008) Professor of Bioethics, Religion and Philosophy, School of Medicine, Case Western Reserve University, and Senior Research Scholar at the Becket Institute of St. Hugh's College, Oxford University. Post is a Senior Fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.
Since the late 1980s Post has focused on issues surrounding the care of others. He is an elected member of the Medical and Scientific Advisory Panel of Alzheimer's Disease International, and was recognized for "distinguished service" by the Association's National Board for educational efforts for Association Chapters and families throughout the United States (1998). In 2003 Post was elected a Member of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia for "distinguished contributions to medicine."
He is equally recognized as a leader in the study of altruism, love, and compassion in the integrative context of scientific research, philosophy, and spirituality. He is President of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, with support from philanthropist John Templeton and the Templeton Foundation. Post studied the theology of agape love with the distinguished African-American Rev. John T. Walker, who later became Dean of the National Cathedral. Post is an elected member of the International Society for Science and Religion, and writes
a blog for Psychology Today entitled "The Joy of Giving."
Visit the author's website.
The Bible clearly tells us that we are to love one another; it also proclaims we are to bear one another’s burdens. Research has revealed that when we show concern for others—empathizing with a friend who has lost a loved one, mowing the lawn for an elderly neighbor, or volunteering to mentor a school-aged child—we improve our own health and well-being and embrace and give voice to our deeper identity and dignity as human beings.
“Everyone stumbles on hard times. After all, no one gets out of life alive,” writes Stephen G. Post in his latest book, The Hidden Gifts of Helping: How the Power of Giving, Compassion, and Hope Can Get Us Through Hard Times. “Today, even those who had considered themselves protected from hardship are being touched and their lives changed by volatile economic markets, job uncertainty, and the increasing isolation and loneliness of modern life.”
In this moving book, Post helps us discover how we can make “helping” a lifetime activity. The Hidden Gifts of Helping explores the very personal story of Post and his family’s difficult move and their experience with the healing power of helping others, as well as his passion about how this simple activity—expressed in an infinite number of small or large ways—can help you survive and thrive despite the expected and unexpected challenges life presents.
Post’s story is a spiritual journey that we can all relate to at some time in our lives. Intertwined with supporting scientific research and spiritual understanding we see that looking outside of ourselves we gain better well-being and strengthen our faith. This book can become your companion and guide to the power of giving, forgiving, and compassion in hard times.
List Price: $19.95
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Jossey-Bass; 1 edition (February 22, 2011)
AND NOW...THE 2nd CHAPTER:
About five months after our move to Stony Brook, settling in to my new work but still struggling to deal with feelings of displacement and loss, I ran headlong into the holiday season. I missed our friends back in Cleveland, our church, the small traditions we’d established over the years. Although our Christmas mantel was decorated with many cards from friends who I know truly did wish us a happy new year, I found myself feeling a bit quiet when all I wanted was to enjoy the holidays. Then one of those serendipitous moments came along that refocused me toward what I knew to be true: that the hidden
gifts of helping would far outlast the other gifts these holidays might bring.
During a December train ride on the Long Island Railroad, traveling back to Stony Brook from a meeting in Manhattan, I fell into conversation with my seatmate, Jack, an amiable man some years older than myself. In the sudden intimacy that can arise between strangers who know they will never meet again, Jack told me that his wife of twenty years had divorced him and that he had been fired from a job he’d
held for thirty years, was newly diagnosed with cancer, and was close to running out of his retirement savings because he’d had to spend the money on day-to-day living. The one thing that was holding him together through all this, he said, was a volunteer job he had serving meals at his church’s soup kitchen
in Port Jefferson. “It’s not just that I can’t feel really sorry for myself when I see so many others who have no resources at all,” he explained. “When I put that food on their plate, and I know they’re really hungry—they can’t just run to the fridge, like I can—I can see that I’m really helping someone. Even if
they’re too exhausted to acknowledge me or say thanks, that’s okay. I don’t know,” he shrugged, “it just makes me feel like I can keep going another day, and things might start to get better. It’s odd, but some days I feel better than I ever have.”
“Thank you.” I felt as if I had been jolted awake from a deep sleep.
“Sure,” he said, clearly confused about what I was thanking him for, and why I was smiling. But I felt as though I’d just been handed my first real gift of the season. This man had far more reason than I had to be suffering the holiday blues, yet by sharing his story he had helped me let go of some of my concerns and remember what I already knew: when all else fails, we can still give to others. And doing so will always be our salvation, our reconnection to the world. This phenomenon of “the giver’s glow”! I have learned never to underestimate its power.
You’ve probably seen people waving brightly colored glow sticks at a nighttime event, and you may have had the pleasure of experiencing the magic of snapping the tube and seeing it suddenly light up, creating a soft, colorful glow that lasts for hours and can light your way on a dark night. The principle is simple: the chemicals in the translucent plastic tube mix to create the glow—but only when you break the tiny glass
capsule inside the tube. The brokenness is part of the process, just as the broken parts of our lives can allow us to reach out to others and create radiance, lighting the way not only for those we serve but also for ourselves and everyone we meet. The amazing thing is that with advances in brain scan technology, we can now begin to understand this glow at the physical level and measure it with biological markers. When we help others, we are tapping into a caregiving system that involves the brain as well as hormones.
Mitsuko, Andrew, and I all agree that the lowest point of our lives came a few days after we had left Cleveland and landed on the rocky Long Island shore. We were spending a few nights at a hotel in Stony Brook Village while we waited for the movers to arrive with our worldly goods. We were crammed into a little cottage that felt old and cold because it was. There were two beds, a few old bits of furniture, and a
drab bathroom, and it was thunderstorming and utterly dark outside in the early evening. This was the perfect place for all hell to break loose, and it did. The enormity of this move began to sink in at a really deep level. Andrew started yelling at me, as kids do, and Mitsuko was crying out in tears, “I can’t believe this! What a total disaster!” I was the least popular husband and father on the face of the earth. I said, “Let’s give it some time; things will work out,” but my credibility was at an all-time low. I needed hope, which is wrapped up in faith, because mere optimism was too superficial and was clearly not going to do the trick. I took a drive on my own for a while, and after I returned, Mitsuko and Andrew were asleep.
I tiptoed quietly.
Fortunately, the movers came quickly. A few days after we moved into our new house, Mitsuko went across the street to the local elementary school, where she found a position helping first-graders with behavioral or learning problems. She was assigned a student who was especially cherished, and who presented behavioral issues during the course of the day. Mitsuko spent the next nine months with this little girl, helping her throughout the school day. It was often challenging, and there were more than a few evenings when Mitsuko felt exasperated. But she found great meaning in this way of helping. And in the evenings she would make beautifully creative origami gifts for the children in her class, illustrating for them the characters in stories the students were reading as a group. Mitsuko put so much work into these wonderfully elaborate posters and cards and illustrations that it astounded me. But this was her way of giving, through creativity; her hands were at work crafting things in the spirit of love. More than once, she’s told me, “I cannot imagine how I could have survived without those kids.”
For Andrew, the transition was a jolt, and he let us know it. He wanted so much to start school with his old friends in Shaker Heights, but he couldn’t. The day that middle school started in Cleveland without him was a rough one. And on his first day at the Gelinas School here in Setauket, we couldn’t say a single word to Andrew because it was so hard for him as he reluctantly left the house for the bus. Andrew was the new kid, and he had no friends. He knew no one. “That morning,” Mitsuko remembers, “he looked really sad and was speechless. But that afternoon he came home and said, ‘Mom, I had a very good day. Ten people, including girls, wanted to have lunch with me at the same table.’ ” That was joyous! And a few days later, our son adopted a new name the other kids had started using, “Drew,” and he asked us to start called him that too. He was reinventing himself. Drew is definitely an extrovert, and this allowed him to connect with new friends quickly.
I also began to connect with my new colleagues. Mitsuko began to connect beyond the children, with teachers and parents and the larger community on our little island. The new Drew, with the resiliency of youth, continued to make friends, and began a transformation that continues to amaze us. Together, we helped each other recreate our lives.
HELPING OTHERS MAKES US HUMAN
Here’s the recipe for living a rich, less stressful, healthier, and more meaningful life than you thought possible—even if your world has been pulled out of midwestern earth and transplanted on an island: give of yourself to someone else. Even the smallest act is healing. In fact, studies show that just thinking about giving seems to have a physiological impact.
In the 1980s, the renowned Harvard behavioral psychologist David McClelland discovered that Harvard students who were asked to watch a film about Mother Teresa’s work tending to orphans in Calcutta showed significant increases in the protective antibody salivary immunoglobulin A (S-IgA) as compared to those watching a neutral film. What’s more, S-IgA levels remained high for an hour after the film in
those subjects who were asked to focus their minds on times when they had loved or been loved. McClelland called this the “Mother Teresa Effect.”1 There may be some alternative explanations, but the idea that tapping into the emotions of caring has an impact on biology is the most plausible and well
These researchers concluded that “dwelling on love” strengthens the immune system. And a growing body of rigorous research shows that generous people who frequently give of themselves to others live healthier, happier, longer lives than people who don’t. Think about it for a minute: How could we humans survive without taking the welfare of at least some others as seriously as we take our own? We require the love and care of others, and we seem to have a profound, deeply evolved need for close, giving relationships. Parents are spontaneously generous and giving to their children, sometimes to the point of sacrificing their deepest desires and even their lives for them. Friends are also frequently generous with their friends, and strangers are often compassionate toward one another—as we’ve all seen happen with those everyday people who dropped everything in their own lives to help the survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and those displaced by the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Something about moving beyond self and looking toward others brings happiness. When we stop expecting others to do things for us, and stumble on the happiness of doing things for other people, we can’t help but realize that whatever happens, we can handle it.
We eat because it keeps us alive, and we help others because it keeps us human. This is what we are born to do, and the benefits are great—not only to those we help but also to our own emotional and spiritual well-being. Science tells us that there appears to be a fundamental human drive toward helping others. We prosper—physically, mentally, emotionally—under the canopy of positive emotions that arise through the simple act of giving.
Evolution suggests that human nature evolved in a manner that confers health benefits to the practice of benevolent love and helping behaviors. Well over a century ago, Charles Darwin, in his great book The Descent of Man, described in simple terms how compassion and generosity could have evolved so deeply into human nature that their inhibition would be disadvantageous: “For those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Darwin, like David Hume and other philosophers who were keen observers of human motive and action, saw compassionate love as a powerful driving force in human nature. It makes perfect sense that if this disposition is selectively advantageous for group survival, there would be a related biological substrate conferring benefits on the giver. Today, a new science connects prosocial and giving activities with happiness and health, and we are learning more all the time.
HELPING IS BUILT INTO THE HUMAN BRAIN
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.
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. 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 selfgiving love and helping behaviors described in this chapter 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 forty-five hundred 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. 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 the Corporation for National and Community Service, key findings on national volunteerism for 2009 include the following heartening
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 Americans and slowly centering our attention on the things that matter most. As you will learn in this chapter, 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. 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. There is a lot we do not yet understand about
how best to organize, acknowledge, celebrate, and reward volunteers.
I have spoken with several dozen teen volunteers over the years and conducted one survey. For the most part their experiences are positive and life changing. But there are always those volunteers who have been poorly managed, overwhelmed, frustrated, asked to do things they were uncomfortable with, or given leadership roles that they did not embrace. The more we enhance the organizational aspects of helping others, the more that people will experience elevated meaning and happiness uniformly.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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 the premier psychiatry journal. Scientists were observing the health benefits to helpers in a variety of contexts—including teens tutoring younger children.
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. 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 help16—and they became significantly less depressed.
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.
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. 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.” 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. Lori D’Angelo, Ph.D., director of Magnolia Clubhouse in
Cleveland, said, “I think that people tend to be more stable and happy if they feel like they are benefiting people more than themselves, or outside themselves. It helps them feel connected to a larger picture, and I would think that of human beings in general.”
HELPING OTHERS RELIEVES STRESS AND SOOTHES NEGATIVE EMOTIONS
A woman named Ilene recently wrote to tell me her story. It seems that she was especially caring and devoted while her husband was slowly dying of Huntington’s disease, during what should have been the prime of his life. It was a crushing amount of stress for anyone to bear.
During that terrible time, “I had two choices,” she says. “Remain miserable or do something good. I consider myself quite an optimist, and chose the latter.” Interestingly, she was inspired by her husband, who had managed to stay positive throughout his prolonged illness, “right down to his last day on this earth. There were days that I would come to him with my own troubles, both out of a need to have this continued ability to share feelings with him to keep the intimacy in our relationship, and also because it really was difficult towards the end. Each time, he’d lift my spirits, even though I was there to lift his. I sensed that giving him the opportunity to comfort me actually helped give him some added sense purpose, as well.”
While he was in the final stages of his illness, she said, “I also gave freely of myself as an alumni volunteer to my alma mater, Hofstra University. This helped counterbalance all that I was experiencing emotionally, giving me something positive to do to help others.”
And after his death, Ilene continued to share her giver’s glow.
Seeing there were no groups around for young widows and widowers in the area, I started one of my own: the Long Island/NYC Metro Area Young Widow/ers Group. This turned out to be one of the best things I have ever done. I’m continually helping others dealing with their situations, which is an uplifting experience for me as well. I’ve made many friends and also, in hearing their stories, I’ve gained a better perspective about my own situation. I realize I have many blessings in my life that others are not as fortunate to share. The amazing thing is, after only a short time since his passing, I find myself one of the most positive people I know, and my goal is to continue helping others around me also achieve this positive attitude.
In June 2010, I addressed Ilene’s group in a restaurant gathering in Farmingdale, New York. They all understood from experience the power of coping with loss through self-giving. There was only one fellow there who disagreed. He said, “I never do something for nothing.” I asked him if he was happy, but got no response. The group chimed in to support the role of self-giving in their own lives, but to no great avail. 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. It is a privilege to be working alongside these leading researchers. 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.23 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. So if you are the kind of person who falls heavily on the horn because the driver in front of you has the audacity to slow down at a yellow light, and you yell out some expletive in the bargain, you have a problem. Multitasking or being fast paced isn’t what does damage; it is the protracted emotional hostility that creates a health issue for the heart. And the best way to turn this hostility around is to engage in doing “unto others” with helpful acts of kindness, reclaiming the heart at its best and for its best.
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. In contrast, positive emotions can promote health and healing. When we
reach out to others, our negative feelings of hostility, rumination, resentment, and fear are displaced by positive feelings of concern and love.
HELPING OTHERS MAY HELP US LIVE LONGER
Remember that saying “Only the good die young”? Don’t be fooled into accepting its sad implications. I prefer to think of it this way: whenever we die, however old, we will feel young at heart if we live generous lives. In fact, the good actually die a bit older, generally speaking. People who volunteer tend to
live longer, for instance. 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.
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. 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.”
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.”
An intriguing five-year study found that older adults who provided no instrumental or emotional support to others were more than twice as likely to die during those five years than people who helped spouses, friends, relatives, and neighbors. It seems that it truly is better to give than to receive!
As my family and I made our transition to a new life in a new community, we realized that our choice was clear: giver’s glow or doubter’s darkness. We did a lot of little things every day to reinforce our giving practice, even just remembering to smile at those we met during the day.
Reaching out to help others saved my life, or so it feels. I know Mitsuko feels that way. “Every child is so special. Getting absorbed again in helping other children took my mind off dealing with my own difficulties in this time of adjustment. I had to look outwards, toward these kids, rather than looking inward at my own problems.” I felt the same way, and with the astonishingly high quality of medical students at Stony Brook, this was easy to do.
For most of us, helping means being ready to lend a helping hand, or being willing to have our work interrupted when others need our time to make their lives a bit more manageable. This can occur in the family, in the neighborhood, in the workplace, in school . . . or just about anywhere. Recently, I received an e-mail from a woman who had been compelled to move from her country home to a city apartment better suited to her physical condition. Just before her move, she had some trees trimmed, separating a mother squirrel from her nest and scattering the babies. She gently gathered the babies, placing them near the tree, and watched until the mother returned to carry them one by one to an alternate nest. She wrote, “So, while I moved to another town, I came back to the house twice a week, called, “Momma! Momma!” and she would come to me . . . or, to the handful of walnuts I offered. This has gone on for many months, as I haven’t sold my house. Believe me, I, too, get ample nutrition for my soul.”
When I arrived at Stony Brook University, I was blessed to have a remarkable administrator as my right hand in all things. Elisa Nelson has been synergistic with me in every decision—without her, I would probably have perished grappling with the astounding educational bureaucracy. Elisa is one of the most diligent, generous, and spiritual women I have ever known. She was raised in a very distinguished Cuban family that had to flee during the revolution. Her mother worked menial jobs to raise her daughter, and
she raised her magnificently as an exemplar of self-giving love. I could not have asked for a more perfect colleague for this project on compassionate care. Recently, the Face of America Project included Elisa in a commentary on its Web site. Here are just some of the kind words they had for her:
She is a giver, a helper, a doer of good deeds. In the time we were at the medical center, she helped us find a location for our shoot. She helped us fix a problem with our tripod. She saw to it that we had a quiet place for our interview. She made coffee for us. She introduced us to other staff members. She willingly shared her story with us. She volunteered to stamp our parking ticket. She took us to the cafeteria for a bite to eat, and she walked with us to the parking garage where we exchanged warm farewells.
Elisa is proactive, thoughtful and helpful in all the ways that matter. She is a woman of grace, dignity and humility who has mastered the art of selfless giving to others. Her face of America is one we will never forget.
So here’s the recipe for a better life: enjoy being a generous, giving person and be generous and give often. The helping that goes on in everyday life, in the home, between friends, at work or school, or with a stranger at the food line is not what we would call heroic.
Here in Stony Brook, I kept it simple. I tried to be a consistent helper in small, everyday ways, even with just a bright smile and a hello. I accepted every little unpaid invitation to speak publicly at local libraries or volunteer events, and built up a presence in the local community.
One important practice for me was offering hospitality to my new faculty recruits. Each time we had applicants in, we really concentrated on making their stay an inspiring one. One of the best philosophers of altruism moved here from California, leaving behind many friends, good colleagues, and a developed reputation in the university community there. Three others came from Michigan. They all went through upheavals in relocating, just as I and my family had. Our empathy for each other helped us through the ups and downs of building a new program and rebuilding our lives.
Despite all our efforts as a family, we still had some bad days, some arguments, some sadness, of course. The stresses were unavoidable—that’s the nature of moves. Yet by giving to others, we managed to keep our minds off our own issues (some of the time, at least) and that has helped heal us.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF WHILE HELPING OTHERS
But there can be too much of a good thing: “selfless” giving does not require you to neglect yourself! Giving is worth doing—but not to the point of exhaustion. Good people need to know how to draw boundaries around themselves so they can have time to take in nature, exercise, enjoy friends, and get away. Take the example of clergy members who feel the need to be available to congregants 24/7. Numerous reports indicate high burnout rates, and significant numbers end up leaving ministry because it gets to be too draining. Sometimes, when people feel called by God to do something, it is hard for them to acknowledge their emotional and physical limitations. Yes, we are one human family, and we are connected together in a common good. But we also need to learn to say “enough” and entrust others to take over for a while. I have known some really great doctors and social workers who have given their all to the neediest but did not know how to back off and find balance in their lives.
Please avoid the altruistic treadmill of doing more and more, running faster and faster. And don’t compare yourself to others. Our need to give will vary at times and across circumstances, and we have our own unique physical and psychological limits. We all have certain fundamental needs to be loved and cherished, to be secure and respected. Helping others is not at all about getting rid of these needs, but rather about fulfilling the universal need to give and live better.
Balance is the key. At the right dosage, self-giving is a one-a-day vitamin for the body as well as the soul. We just have to be careful not to give away too much of ourselves in the process. We still have to look after ourselves, get some rest, eat well, and organize our lives to be effective in the long run. The last thing I want is for you to read this book and be inspired to run yourself ragged. Helping provides lots of hidden gifts for the helper, but do not exceed your capacity. Over the course of a lifetime, our giving can light many thousands of candles, but if our own wick gets too short through self-neglect, it can die out. Think long term, not like a sprinter.
One of the best ways to help others is by making it possible for them to step back and take a break. When I was just getting started at Case Western, I spent four years providing respite care one day a week for family caregivers of loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease, just to give a break to people near breaking themselves. And it was certainly the most rewarding activity in that period of my life. But it was just one day a week. All these studies on volunteering and health describe “thresholds” of helping others that seem to create a shift in our emotional lives, but none of this research ever suggests that the more helping we do, the better we will feel. When it comes to cultivating generosity and kindness, however, do it all the time.
REPAIRING THE WORLD
Being concerned with the welfare of others simply has every kind of evolutionary advantage. Children do not thrive unless they feel cared for and experience empathy and loyalty. People in a particular group will prosper to the extent that altruistic emotions and behaviors like compassion and cooperation operate effectively. However we look at it, there are big advantages to helping emotions and behaviors. At the same time, it can be difficult to move from concern for our own group to concern for humans as a whole, for the “we” in the sense of a shared humanity. But that’s where we can use spirituality and religion and also the power of the mind to move us away from the very shaky ground of thinking of ourselves as superior and others as inferior.
As a student of world religions and a Christian, I am convinced that when Christianity speaks of being a light to the world, when Buddhism talks about wholeness, and when Hinduism refers to the true self, at least part of what these traditions are talking about involves tapping into the euphoria, calmness, and warmth that scientists describe as an outcome of doing “unto others.” This giver’s glow has healing properties. Inner wholeness and true peace are related to the activity of self-giving love.
In the Jewish tradition, tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) is thought to bring blessing and long life to the giver. It is through giving and helping that we lose our self- centeredness and gain a life energy that bonds us with others and with life itself. In support of this, Judaism also has a religious obligation called tzedakah. More than simple charity, it requires giving anonymously to unknown recipients, regardless of one’s own circumstances. The Old and New Testaments both extol the rewards of giving: “He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed” (Proverbs 11:25) and “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). And the Dalai Lama distills thousands of years of Buddhist thought into this simple guideline: “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others.” This is old wisdom, yet scientific evidence for its truth allows us to understand its depth better and take it more seriously as a way of life.
Whether we are looking at studies of older adults, middleaged women, or preteens, we see that self-giving behavior casts a halo effect over people’s lives, giving them greater longevity, lower rates of heart disease, and better mental health. This “kindness kickback” occurs partly because focusing on others causes a shift from our unhealthy preoccupation with ourselves and our problems, and it reduces the stressrelated wear and tear on body and soul. It also seems to activate a part of the brain associated with joy, is associated with hormones that are linked to a feeling of inner calm, and even seems to provide a little immune system boost. Add to these biological benefits a more balanced perspective on our own problems and a greater sense of purpose, selfworth, and self-control, and wow! There is a real mind-body
Giving validates our own existence, and we can start right where we are. We do not need to travel far at all. Right here in this place is fine. We do not need to race around doing everything we can for others 24/7, as if the more we do the better we will feel. Helping others should be something about which we are all mindful on a daily basis. If we can hang on to the thread of self-giving over the course of a lifetime, this will create a glow of greater happiness and health over all that we do.
I cannot predict the future of the New York State economy or whether someday my status as a state employee will be threatened by big furloughs or layoffs. Nor can I predict how far housing values will fall, whether this will be a “double dip” recession, or if the burden of taxes will become even heavier. Things may get a lot harder in the United States as national debt goes through the roof and our children have to foot the bill. But come what may, we can all stay in close touch with the better angels of our shared human nature. This is where our strength lies. As Sir John Templeton wrote, “Every act of helping is a way of saying yes to life.”
FINDING YOUR OWN HIDDEN GIFTS
Giving to others, as should now be quite clear, has remarkable benefits for the giver. But it’s not a cure-all—nothing is. It does not cure cancer, though I have known many cancer survivors who, feeling that they have been given a second lease on life, have devoted themselves to lives of amazing giving. It does not overcome aging and eventual death, though it seems to enhance longevity. It does not cure Alzheimer’s disease, though love provides whatever resurrection-of-a-sort there can be in the lives of family caregivers and affected individuals. And people who are really deeply depressed cannot just “help” their way out of it; they generally need medical treatments first that will allow them to start to reach out to others.
Yet, regardless of condition, we can still give—whether it is a meal to a hungry soul, a hug to crying child, or a walnut to squirrel. You may not be able to trust that the world you have come to love will not shift beneath your feet, but you can trust your own heart always to reach out with love, even if it is just a
matter of intentionally smiling.
Take a few moments now to think about how you can find the hidden gifts of giving in your own life:
Keep a journal about the large and small ways you are giving to people right now. If you are having trouble thinking of any (I hope not!), ask a friend or loved one. You may be surprised to find that a friendly smile, a question about how things have been going, or an offer to pick up groceries helped someone through a rough patch and allowed him or her to keep going. Once a week, write down all the things you thought of, and discover how much you are already giving! Jot down how helping others makes you feel, in terms of meaning, joy, and health. Keep doing this for the rest of your life, whatever else happens.
Think about the ways others have given to you, right now or in the past. You may want to give back to them with a simple, heartfelt thank you, or even a letter letting them know how much they helped you.
Visualize helping. Every morning, take just five minutes to close your eyes and visualize yourself performing positive helping actions with some of the people you know you will encounter during the day—family, friends, coworkers, and strangers. Imagine a few specific interactions, including ones with the negative people you will inevitably meet. Use a little affirmation, such as “My words and actions heal.” In psychology, this is called “priming.” And there are lots of new neuroscience data to tell us why it is so effective in shaping behavior. You do what you envision, and you are what you think you are, all day long. If you do a little positive mental imaging before your day begins, you’ll be more likely to respond helpfully to the world around you, especially in hard times.
Make it a practice to help one person every day. This is an easy and gratifying exercise that with very little practice can become a natural part of your daily routine. It is simple to keep track of. Whether you help by holding the elevator, dropping a dollar into a homeless person’s hand, pitching in to help with a loved one’s chore, accompanying a friend to a doctor’s appointment . . . notice how this makes you feel, and write about it in your journal at the week’s end.
Draw on your own talents in giving. We all have special strengths and talents. You may love music, art, or writing; you may be athletic or mechanical; you may love reading and sharing what you’ve read; you may love cooking or sewing or any of the homely arts; you may be a computer whiz or a math lover. However great or meager your talent, as long as you’re passionate about it, that’s what counts. Research shows that we benefit most when we help others by drawing on our natural gifts—and they benefit too. Use the talents you possess. Develop them as far and as deeply as they will go in the service of others. People tend to stick with helping others when they are doing things that they feel they are good at.