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Helping Others Is Good For Your Health

I have an elderly patient in my small psychotherapy practice who is a wealthy Silicon Valley retired professional with no relatives. He participates in volunteer and philanthropic activities that provide him with meaning, direction, and joy. He says he gets much more out of giving to others than they get out of his generosity. He’s not alone. Many people report that helping others feels good, however what they (and you) might not know is that research has demonstrated that giving to others actually helps us a great deal.

For example, many colleges and high schools offer students immersion service trips during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring breaks. Students work with the poor and marginalized rather than taking a relaxing vacation focused on their own needs and pleasures. Some of these experiences occur at local social service and community agencies, such as a local homeless shelter, while others occur overseas. At SCU, these alternative trips are very popular.

My students and I conducted and published several studies where we assess compassion, stress management, well-being, spiritual fulfillment, and so forth before volunteers  leave for a service-oriented trip, immediately upon their return, and several months later. We then compared their responses to other students (matched by age and gender) who choose to not go on these alternative community based learning experiences.

not only are students who help others more compassionate once they return from an immersion service trip and months later, but they also have higher well-being and stress management scores
After statistical analysis, we found that not only are students who help others more compassionate once they return from an immersion service trip and months later, but they also have higher well-being and stress management scores.
 
We don't know exactly why those who help others obtain these benefits, but we believe that it may likely be due to the perspective they receive while working with those who have much less than they do. Perhaps they see their lives relative to others with less and thus hassles and disappointments don't seem so bad in comparison. How can you be bothered by the size of your dorm room, or the stress of final exams, or by not having the latest iPhone when others suffer and struggle? These students developed more gratitude and reasonable expectations for themselves when they compare their lives to those of others.
those who volunteer an average of two hours per week throughout their lives have a 40 percent lower mortality rate than those who don't
My colleague, Professor Carl Thoresen, at our Spirituality and Health Institute at Santa Clara University, found that those who volunteer an average of two hours per week throughout their lives have a 40 percent lower mortality rate than those who don't. In his remarkable study he found that regular volunteering actually was associated with a longer life.
 
Doing the right thing for others means helping those in need. Being with them as equals in solidarity is important too; rather than behaving in a  superior position. While we perhaps are more likely to volunteer or help others during the holiday season, we might want to consider doing so year round. It's the right thing to do for others and it's the right thing to do for ourselves.
 
 
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*A version of this article was originally published by Psychology Today on Nov. 21, 2009.
Community, Silicon Valley
Santa Clara,psychology,personal growth,compassion,health,Illuminate

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