At a time when we are all experiencing an extraordinary level of stress, science offers a simple and effective way to bolster our own emotional health.
To help yourself, start by helping others.
Much of the scientific research on resilience — which is our ability to bounce back from adversity — has shown that having a sense of purpose, and giving support to others, has a significant impact on our well-being.
Our bodies and minds benefit in a variety of ways when we help others.
Some research has focused on the “helper’s high.” Studies show that
- donating money, or
- even just thinking about donating money
can release feel-good brain chemicals and activate the part of the brain stimulated by the pleasures of food and sex. Studies of volunteers show that do-gooders had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol on days they did volunteer work.
Rules that require us to be physically apart during the pandemic mean that our traditional ways of volunteering in person are no longer possible.
The good news is that the type of support that can be helpful to both giver and receiver can be given in a variety of small and big ways. It can include giving money or time to a cause. Or it can be as simple as a phone call, giving advice or just lending a listening ear.
I used to dread my mom’s daily “coronavirus distress” calls from her because they were so upsetting for me. She’s quarantined in her retirement community apartment, a beautiful place to be “locked up”, but not for month after month with no end in sight.
I eventually realized she wasn’t asking for help as much as she needed someone to talk to about all that’s going on, to complain about the inconveniences and discuss coping strategies.
So, I mainly just listen and don’t let myself get frustrated or irritable. Now that I see my compassionate listening as a “good deed”, I no longer dread it. I’m amazed by how quickly and completely that turned my situation around.
In fact, the act of giving advice has been shown to be more beneficial than receiving it.
In a series of studies of 2,274 people, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago found that after middle-school students mentored younger students about studying, they ended up spending more time on their own homework.
Dr. Grant said we often are better at giving advice to people other than ourselves. “One of the best things you can do is call someone else facing a similar problem and talk them through it,” said Dr. Grant, who co-founded an online networking platform called Givitas
Feeling responsible for other people also can help us cope with whatever challenges life brings. Emily A. Greenfield, an associate professor of social work at Rutgers University, studied a concept called “felt obligation,”
Greenfield analyzed data collected from 849 participants in an ongoing study of health and well-being, that asked about felt obligation as well as health-related declines they experienced over time, such as problems carrying groceries or walking a block.
As it turned out, the people who had higher levels of felt obligation — meaning they were the type of people to sacrifice for others — coped better with their own life challenges.
“These findings fit with the idea that an orientation to helping others is a protective factor — something that is especially important for well-being when confronted with distressing life circumstances,” Dr. Greenfield said.
She noted that caring for others helps us to regulate our own emotions and gain a sense of control.
That’s very true for me. When I get stuck in my own “stuff” that I have no control over, I can make myself feel better by doing something nice for someone else. (even if it’s just refilling the hummingbird feeders or calling a friend).
Several studies suggest that supporting others helps buffer our bodies against the detrimental effects of stress. A five-year study of 846 people in Detroit found that stressful life events appeared to take a greater toll on people who were less helpful to others, while helping others seemed to erase the detrimental physical effects of stressful experiences.