Helping Others Boosts Happiness and Health

(2 min read)

Having recently returned from a working holiday trip to Tanzania, a place that I visited in 2011 and that continues to draw me back, I’ve been reflecting on why it holds such appeal to me. One might think that volunteering at a children and women’s centre would breed some pretty heavy emotions, but I beg to argue that the opposite can actually be true. Perhaps, it’s not the environment, per se, that leaves me wanting to go back for more but, rather, the emotional experience of connecting with and helping those in need.

And, it seems that the scientific literature can back me up on this. In a 2016 study by Ali, Khan & Zehra, volunteerism, or the act of providing service to others without material pay, was linked to better mental health, with volunteers reporting increasing levels of happiness the more they volunteered. The benefits extend to physical health, as well. In a group of older adults, those who volunteered experienced a decreased risk of developing hypertension, a condition that is often associated with chronic stress (Sneed & Cohen, 2013).

In a more recent study by Yeung, Zhang & Kim (2018), it was found that the type of volunteer work matters when it comes to gaining both physical and mental health benefits. Those who take on others-oriented volunteer work, which has a direct impact on other people (e.g. in healthcare, youth development, or education), experience significantly greater overall health benefits than do those who take on self-oriented volunteer work, which tends to have more personal benefits through, for example, growing one’s network, gaining new skills, or developing one’s career (e.g. in recreation, politics, or business).

I believe that reaching out to those in need doesn’t have to be as extravagant as hopping on a plane and traveling half-way around the world. It can be done anywhere, anytime, and without taking a lot of time. What follows are some easy ways that almost anyone can begin cultivating joy through helping others.

1 | Practice Gratitude

Keeping a daily gratitude journal or incorporating gratitude into daily meditation can lead to altruistic behaviours (that is, giving for the sake of giving). It is theorized that in acknowledging how others are impacting our own lives for the better, we become motivated to reciprocate, and when we receive thanks for our reciprocation, this inspires us to help others even more (McCullough, Kilpatrick, Emmons & Larson, 2001).

2 | Spread Random Acts of Kindness

Holding the door, smiling at someone on the street, paying for a stranger’s coffee, or helping a tourist find their way are all examples of random acts of kindness. These gestures tend to be spontaneous, low in cost (or free), and they take little effort, but the payoff can be enormous. Visit https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/ to get more ideas! 

3 | Engage in Meaningful Work

What would you do with your days if you didn’t have to work for a living? What brings you joy? What are some of your peak life experiences? Answering these questions can give us insight into what’s most meaningful to us, and often, this involves working towards the growth and development of ourselves, others, and/or the world at large. Once you identify what makes you tick, look around your community and see where there might be opportunities for honing your strengths and skills. Or, if these opportunities don’t exist, see if you can get creative and start up a project of your own.

Adopting a helper’s mindset is not a one-sided pursuit. It goes both ways as the recipient and the helper gain. And, with the ripple effect that’s created on both ends, one small act of help can result in exponentially greater benefits.

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Ali, S. B., Khan, N. A. & Zehra, A. (2016). Effect of volunteerism on mental health and happiness. International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 5(2), 123-130.

McCullough, M. E., Kilpatrick, S. D., Emmons, R. A. & Larson, D. B. (2001). Is gratitude a moral affect? Psychological Bulletin, 127(2), 249-266.

Sneed, R. S. & Cohen, S. (2013). A prospective study of volunteerism and hypertension risk in older adults. Psychology and aging, 28(2), 578-586.

Yeung, J. W. K., Zhang, Z. & Kim, T. Y. (2018). Volunteering and health benefits in general adults: Cumulative effects and forms. BCM Public Health, 18(8). DOI 10.1186/s12889-017-4561-8.

 

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