A story is told of two brothers who found a couple of well-worn shoes on the side of a farmer’s field. After first considering what excellent pranks they could play on the farmer with those shoes, the older boy finally suggested they instead put a silver dollar inside the toe of each. They hid on the side of the road to watch. The feeling the boys experienced upon witnessing the grateful farmer’s reaction was better and more long-lasting than the belly laugh that would have resulted from hiding the shoes instead. They sacrificed their own pocket money but received something greater, although intangible. (1)
Parents and grandparents, pastors and priests throughout history have told similar stories to illustrate the benefits of service. Now we don’t just have to take their word for it–enter science, to quantify those intangible benefits. It turns out, a good feeling isn’t all you get when you help someone else.
What’s in it for me?
- Well, you do get that warm, fuzzy feeling. Researchers in Canada found that toddlers showed greater happiness when they shared their own treats than when they gave away an “extra” treat provided by the experimenter. (2) This suggests that humans are hardwired to find giving behavior rewarding, and it just makes us feel good. Many studies show that helping others increases well-being, gives a greater sense of self-worth and decreases depressive symptoms. (3)
- Stress management superpowers. Stressful situations will always be around to plague us, but studies show that helping others moderates the effects of stress, both physically and emotionally. A study of 77 adults 18 to 44 years old reported on stressful events during the day and also on helpful behaviors that they engaged in that same day. The more helpful subjects were to others that day, the lower their negative responses to stress. In fact, stress had almost no impact on the more helpful subjects’ positive emotion ratings. (4) Another experiment showed that older adults that volunteered to massage infants were found to have significantly lowered stress hormones.(5)
- Did we mention better physical health? Studies show that especially among older people, the physical benefits are significant. Regular volunteers over 50 years old are less likely than non-volunteers to have high blood pressure, that common malady of aging that contributes to stroke, heart disease, and premature death. (6) Lower mortality rates are also tied to volunteering among older populations.
Dickens’ character Ebenezer Scrooge is the fictitious illustration of this principle: the more the man gave away, the more ebullient he became. Perhaps we won’t all go from miserable old curmudgeon to kindly old St. Nick, but somewhere in the middle lies our own improved well-being gained from helping others.
Read more about stress management and helping others:
Volunteering can improve physical health:
Serving and social connectedness:
- Author unknown. “An Inspiring Story of Kindness.” http://184.108.40.206/newsletterproject/issue/linkfiles/SL000256.pdf
- Aknin, Lara B., et. al. “Giving Leads to Happiness in Young Children,” PLOS/one, June 14, 2012. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0039211
- Post, Stephen G. “Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to be Good.” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2005 (12). http://www.unlimitedloveinstitute.org/downloads/12%20Altruism,%20Happiness%20and%20Health%20IJBM%202005.pdf
- “Helping Others Dampens the Effects of Everyday Stress,” Association for Psychological Science, December 14, 2015. http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/helping-others-dampens-the-effects-of-everyday-stress.html
- Field, Tiffany M., et. al. “Elder Retired Volunteers Benefit from Giving Massages to Infants,” Journal of Applied Gerontology. June 1998. http://jag.sagepub.com/content/17/2/229.abstract
- Watson, Stephanie. “Volunteering may be good for body and mind,” Harvard Health Publications. June 26, 2013. http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/volunteering-may-be-good-for-body-and-mind-201306266428