One of the most positive things we can do in our lives is to help other beings in the world flourish. Being pro-social is not only beneficial to the community, it has also been scientifically shown to improve your personal wellbeing. Possessing a generous and compassionate spirit has many benefits and will help you to progress on your personal odyssey towards awakening.
In previous generations, people assisted and depended upon each other substantially; altruistic behaviour (when you help others without any expectation of reward or reciprocity) was a social norm. In today’s digital age, social engagement has withered away and people have become isolated. Many individuals do not feel that they are part of a group or community, and many don’t even know the name of their next-door neighbour. Despite increased personal wealth compared to previous generations, the percentage of people who rate themselves as happy has not increased. At the same time, the prevalence of depression and anxiety has risen dramatically (even considering greater public awareness of psychological issues). We may believe that we are content to live in our bubbles, surrounded by material possessions, ignoring our neighbours and turning a blind eye to those less fortunate than us, but this is a shallow, short-term satisfaction. Ultimately, this disinterest in helping others has led to an individualistic, self-obsessed, and unhappy society.
Helping Others Can Improve Your Wellbeing
Wellbeing is associated with feeling hopeful, happy, good about oneself, energetic, and connected to others. In this modern age, our connections to other people are tangential, and it’s having a negative impact on our happiness. One way that we can re-connect with our fellow human beings and improve our personal wellbeing is by volunteering our time, skills, and knowledge to the community. A wealth of scientific evidence shows that altruistic emotions and behaviour are associated with greater wellbeing, health, and longevity.
- Are 10x more likely to be in good health than people who do not volunteer (Luks, 1988)
- Are less likely to experience major illnesses (Moen, Dempster-McCain, & Williams, 1993)
- Have greater life satisfaction (Hunter & Lin, 1980)
- Have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety (Hunter & Lin, 1980)
- Experience a release of endorphins (aka “helper’s high”) and reduced stress (Luks, 1988)
- Who are elderly have a lower mortality rate (13%) than non-volunteers (30%) (Oman, Thoresen, & McMahon, 1999)
When you live a generous life, you will become aware that in giving yourself to others, you unintentionally enrich and expand your own being. The old single-minded pursuit of personal success and material riches is revealed to be futile and unfulfilling. When you help others, positive emotions of unselfish love and compassion will displace negative emotions such as rage, hatred, and fear, which cause stress and stress-related illness through their harmful impact on immune function.
When people feel good about themselves, their minds become more creative, flexible, and open to information. Positive emotions have been scientifically shown to improve mood and psychological resilience i.e. your ability to ‘bounce back’ from adverse events in your life (Fredrickson, 2003). It is therefore of great benefit to yourself, as well as the community, to act altruistically.
Ways That You Can Help Others
There are many ways that you can help others. For the greatest effects on positive wellbeing, altruistic acts should involve direct contact with people and be voluntary. Although donating money to charity is virtuous, you will not gain the wealth of positive emotion that comes with helping people face-to-face. A study conducted by Arnstein et al. (2002) found that “making a connection” and having “a sense of purpose” were the two most important elements for a fulfilling volunteer experience. Some examples of such roles are listed below.
You can volunteer your time and skills at:
- Centres for senior citizens (e.g. organising days out, activities, assisting with grocery shopping)
- Soup kitchens and shelters for the homeless
- Youth groups
- Agencies for people with a disability
- Community initiatives (e.g. local clean-up programs)
- Meals on Wheels
- School-building projects in third-world countries
- Literacy programs for children and adults struggling to read
- Public libraries (e.g. teaching a basic computer skills class for seniors)
- Natural disasters (e.g. State Emergency Services)
- Telephone helplines such as Lifeline
Activity: Random Acts of Kindness
You can also engage in small acts of altruism on a day-to-day basis, such as by helping an elderly person cross the road, giving way to others as you board the train, buying a homeless person lunch, or offering to cook dinner for your partner. Get into the habit of committing to a random act of kindness every week without expecting anything in return. Make sure that each week you make an effort to do something different so you are continuing to commit an act of kindness to a variety of different people in a number of different ways.
Arnstein, P., Vidal, M., Wells-Federman, C., Morgan, B., & Caudill, M. (2002). From chronic pain patient to peer: Benefits and risks of volunteering. Pain Management Nursing, 3(3), 94-103.
Easterbrook, G. (2003). The progress paradox: How life gets better while people feel worse. New York: Random House.
Fonagy, P. (1999). Transgressional consistencies of attachment: A new theory. Dallas, TX: Wiley.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2003). The value of positive emotions: The emerging science of positive psychology is coming to understand why it’s good to feel good. American Scientist, 91(4), 330-335.
Hunter, K. I., & Linn, M. W. (1980-1981). Psychosocial differences between elderly volunteers and non-volunteers. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 12(3), 205-213.
Luks, A. (1988). Helper’s high: Volunteering makes people feel good, physically and emotionally. And like “runner’s calm”, it’s probably good for your health. Psychology Today, 22(10), 34-42.
Oman, D., Thoresen, C. E., & McMahon, K. (1999). Volunteerism and mortality among the community-dwelling elderly. Journal of Health Psychology, 4, 301-316.
Post, S. G. (2005). Altruism, happiness, and health: It’s good to be good. International Journal of Behavioural Medicine, 12(2), 66-77.
Putnam, R. D. (2001). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American culture. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Sternberg, E. M. (2001). The balance within: The science connecting health and emotions. New York: Freeman.