Pretty much every post on Mark’s Daily Apple takes up the question of how we can be happier, healthier and more productive in the modern world. We eat well, exercise effectively, play frequently, sleep deeply, socialize meaningfully, create freely, de-stress religiously and sun ourselves daily. They’re the tickets to a well-rounded and healthy life today, and they all not-so-coincidentally supported the survival of our ancestors. They’re the primal stuff of life – of what it means to be physically and cognitively human. I think we’d be remiss to not include in this list the also very human concept of giving.
By giving, let me say, I don’t necessarily mean money. Money by itself can help make a lot of useful and beneficial things happen – for an individual or for an organization that helps individuals in some essential way. What I’m talking about here is service – the time, energy and effort we give to help other people and causes. Of course, we become a positive force in the universe when we do so. We help out a neighbor, spare another forest acre, enhance a community’s hope and opportunity. We make a friend’s day. The evolutionary undercurrent here is mutual benefit. Sure, we’re helping others, but we’re also benefiting ourselves in ways we might not expect.
Sure, we get that gratifying “helper’s high,” the blast of feel good hormones such as oxytocin. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, however. In an employee study (PDF) conducted by United Health Group, those who volunteered scored better on nine measures of emotional wellness that included “personal independence, capacity for rich interpersonal relationships and overall satisfaction with life.” Of those who volunteered, the majority said they felt less stress and nearly all reported that their service enhanced their “sense of purpose in life.”
Research has found significant benefits for older adults in particular. In a randomized clinical trial involving Baltimore’s Experience Corps, Johns Hopkins researchers observed physical and cognitive benefits in older adult volunteers who tutored in urban schools. Participants reported significant gains in perception of social support and connectedness as well as physical strength and mobility. Another Carnegie Mellon University study found volunteering was associated with a 40% lower risk of high blood pressure in older adults. It’s possible the kind of volunteering can influence gains as well. Larger scale research out of Cornell University showed older adults who volunteered with an environmental stewardship program were less likely to experience depression in later years. The lower risk was 50% for environmental volunteers and 10% for non-environmental causes/services. Finally, research shows volunteerism significantly lowers mortality risk in one study by over 60%.
For all the focus on older adults, however, people in any age group experience advantages. Adolescent in a University of British Columbia study showed lower BMI, inflammation and cholesterol readings following a ten week volunteer period. Emotional and physical changes appeared to go hand in hand. As the director of the study noted, “[Those] who reported the greatest increases in empathy, altruistic behavior and mental health were the ones who also saw the greatest improvements in their cardiovascular health.”
The number of hours devoted to volunteering each week doesn’t appear to influence most benefits, but the length of years does matter. As you can imagine, the longer you do it, the greater the benefit. Likewise, those who volunteer for self-focused reasons didn’t benefit compared to non-volunteers. Apparently, we can intellectually know we’ll benefit, but the advantages come when we let go of that intention.
It all makes perfect sense. Genuine giving isn’t an act from the self as much as a participation in the world and relationships around us. Anthropologists who’ve studied modern hunter-gatherer groups explain how band members’ identities are created through participation in the group. They become individuals within the context of the group, growing and accepted in relationship to the group, within an evolving give and take investment in the group.
I don’t consider myself a religious person but was always intrigued by the idea of vocation put forth by writer and theologian Frederick Buechner: “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” The happiest and most fulfilled people I know are those who feel they practice a vocation in life – whether or not it’s how they earn their living.
We just aren’t wired to have hours of time to wallow in chronic and ineffectual solipsism. Giving in whatever sense – formal volunteering, help to friends and neighbors, environmental work – helps us get out of heads. A larger cause (even if it’s just in a one-on-one exchange) than ourselves budges out the self-chatter. We can be in the moment and take “a vacation from our problems.”
In an age when we build an online “profile” and stylize our image to our heart’s (and ambition’s) content, we can more than ever lose sight of where and how we’re really made. We’re not our assembled “likes” and “shares” or our crafted “timelines.” We’re not our collection of pithy tweets. We’re our in-the-flesh contributions.
In giving of yourself – whether through parenthood, vocational service or other social commitments/relationships – I think you gain a certain confidence in your own worth and ability. We can chat ourselves up in our own minds from now until doomsday, but all the psychological pomp and primping is just grandiosity on its own. In acting and exchanging, in offering one’s self and service – that’s where the rubber meets the road. It’s where we’re truly tried and tested – where we grow. Ultimately, it illuminates the divide between grandiosity and gravitas.
We take the lessons – the perspective and humility and all the other goodies – back to our own lives. In the words of Norman Vincent Peale, “When you become detached mentally from yourself and concentrate on helping other people with their difficulties, you will be able to cope with your own more effectively. Somehow, the act of self-giving is a personal power-releasing factor.” In part, the benefits come from our enhanced empathy. As author of The Power of Empathy, Katherine Ketcham, explains, those “who have high relational skills are more successful personally and professionally.” We can be more effective in our work roles and emotional relationships. Overall, we enjoy a more fulfilling life and enhanced well-being. What could be more Primal than that?
As for what you can do in the MDA community, think about this. The Mark’s Daily Apple health challenge begins next month. How could you inspire someone to join or encourage someone who’s already part of the community? How might you pay it forward? I think it’s a great time to spread the word and let others find inspiration (and solutions) within the community. Stay tuned…
What are your thoughts on the power of volunteering? Do you have favorite ways and means of giving? What do you enjoy giving of your self and time? What do you feel you receive? I’ll look forward to reading your feedback. Thanks for reading, everyone, and have a good end to the week.