In 2008, I lost my job of 20 years and uprooted my family to pursue a new position. The move strained my marriage, my relationship with my son, my sense of well-being. Like many Americans in their 50s who thought they were more or less past any financial worries, I found myself anxious for the first time in years.
I know my story is not unusual. These are hard times. Much of our nation, and our planet, is confronted with environmental and economic upheaval. It can be difficult to believe that things are going to get any better anytime soon.
Yet one thing I’ve learned from my own experiences of loss and hardship is that, when all else fails, we can still give to others. And doing so will always be our salvation, our reconnection to the world.
Research backs this up. Whether we are looking at studies of older adults, middle-aged women, or preteens, we see that altruistic behavior casts a halo effect over people’s lives, giving them greater longevity, lower rates of heart disease, and better mental health. We prosper—physically, mentally, emotionally—under the canopy of positive emotions that arise through the simple act of giving.
Science tells us that there appears to be a fundamental human drive toward helping others. When people do “unto others” in kindness, it lights up the primitive part of the brain that also lets us experience joy. 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.
Just last year, a survey of 4,500 American adults showed similar results:
- 73 percent agreed that “volunteering lowered my stress levels.”
- 89 percent reported that “volunteering has improved my sense of well-being.”
- 92 percent agreed that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life.
These benefits are available even—or perhaps especially—to those in the midst of crisis. A recent study by my colleagues Stephanie Brown and Dylan Smith found that people who’d been widowed recovered from depressive symptoms more quickly if they helped others. And research led by Maria Pagano has found that alcoholics who helped others during chemical dependency treatment were more likely to be sober over the following year. Pagano and her colleagues have also found that 94 percent of alcoholics who began to help other alcoholics at any point during a 15-month study period became significantly less depressed.
Other research shows that helping isn’t just linked to a healthier life but to a longer one. For instance, a 2005 analysis of a survey of more than 7,000 older adults, conducted by researchers at Stanford University, found that frequent volunteering was linked to longevity.
The generous behavior documented by this research, and that we witness in everyday life, often is not what we would call heroic. But that’s the beauty of giving. It doesn’t have to be on a grand scale. Regardless of our condition, we can still give—whether it’s a meal to a hungry soul, a hug to a crying child, or a smile to someone we pass on the street—and it will still be meaningful. The world you know may shift beneath your feet, but you can trust your own heart always to reach out with love.
So here are six suggestions for how to appreciate all the ways you’re currently giving to others—and to expand your habits of helping.
1. Keep a journal about the large and small ways you are giving to people right now. If you are having trouble thinking of any, ask a friend or loved one. You may be surprised to find that a friendly smile, a question about how things are going, or an offer to pick up groceries helped someone through a rough patch. Once a week write down all the things you can remember doing for others, and discover how much you are already giving. In my own experiences, I’ve observed that these journals are useful to people of different ages, from high school students performing service learning projects to older adult volunteers.
2. 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. Whether you help by holding the elevator, dropping a dollar into a homeless person’s hand, or pitching in to help with a loved one’s chore, notice how this makes you feel. Positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky has shown that people who perform acts of kindness (five acts on a single day each week) tend to feel happier after six weeks. I would suggest also trying one act a day, each and every day, as author Cami Walker did as she was struggling with multiple sclerosis, chronicled in her book 29 Gifts. Experiment and find the right dose and intensity that makes you happy.
3. Visualize helping. Every morning, take just a few minutes to close your eyes and visualize yourself helping some of the people you know you will encounter during the day. In psychology, this is called “priming,” and lots of new research suggests it’s very effective in shaping behavior. For instance, a study by psychologists Mario Mikulincer and Phillip Shaver found that people were more willing to help someone in need after they’d been prompted to think about a caring and supportive figure in their lives. 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.
4. Draw on your own talents in giving. Research shows that we benefit most when we help others by drawing on our natural gifts. People find it easier to consistently help others when they are doing things they believe they are good at. So think about your own skills, what you most enjoy doing; as long as you’re passionate about it, that’s what counts. Reaching out in the way that best suits you helps keep you on track.
5. 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. Research by psychologist Christopher Peterson has found that writing such a gratitude letter, and delivering it in person, makes people feel significantly happier for a month.
6. Practice concentric visualizations, from the nearest to the neediest. Here is an exercise you can do anytime. Close your eyes and visualize yourself giving a generous smile to the person in your life you love most. Now open your eyes. How do you feel? Imagine that person smiling back and laughing with you. Next, close your eyes and visualize yourself giving a generous smile to someone who is just an acquaintance, and feel that same response and laughter. Finally, close your eyes and visualize yourself giving a generous smile to someone who you think is really in need of help, and feel that response and laughter. Then, imagine how you can help that person, and go out and do it.