January 3, 2019

Help Others—and Heal Yourself!

Could helping others solve my problems?

Peter N. Landless & Zeno L. Charles-Marcel

Q:This year I want to be healthier in body, mind, and spirit. I don’t want to be so selfish and stressed-out about my plans. My dad says that helping others could solve my problems. Is that true?

A:We encourage you in your desire to be healthier in every way this year (body, mind, and spirit),  and we commend your father for his advice. The attitude and act of helping othersdoes promote total health (see table).

Helping others without religious, moral, or social obligation, and without expectation of reward, is called a prosocial action. It involves the giving of yourself through volunteering, sharing, donating, and even cooperating. A key element of these behaviors is the nonobligatory, unselfish motivation for them. So if you’re going to be more helpful with the purpose of becoming healthier, you may get less benefit than if you simply had unselfish concern and acted without considering the benefits to yourself.

So powerful is selfless helping that a 1999 study showed that volunteering had a greater positive influence on lowering death rates than did physical activity, exercising four times a week, and even attendance at religious services. It had only slightly less influence than not smoking.1 As a matter of fact, a review of 40 international studies in 2013 suggests that helping others may add years to your life—with some evidence pointing to a 22 percent reduction in death rates among volunteers compared with nonhelpers. Consider the conclusions reached by researchers in 2009, that helping voluntarily, giving, and otherwise benefitting others were associated with reduced depression and enhanced psychological well-being.2

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics3 published a study that showed that high school students who helped with younger kids once a week for two months experienced a drop in their cholesterol levels. On the other side of the age spectrum, older adults who helped grandchildren or infants in nursery school had lower stress hormone levels and reduced symptoms in those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If you were to read to an elderly individual, walk a 5K for breast cancer, or give a dollar to a homeless person, your brain’s reward center would produce more dopamine, a mood-elevating chemical that increases your sense of well-being. Helping a friend, visiting a relative, or writing thank-you notes once a week for six weeks is associated with a significant boost in well-being, and the effects may be cumulative. The more nice things you do, the better off you become after a minimum threshold. So follow the advice of your dad and Isaiah 58 and give of yourself. After all, God loves a cheerful giver!

  1. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15901215
  2. Adam M. Grant, Sabine Sonnentag, “Doing Good Buffers Against Feeling Bad,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 111 (2010): 13-22.
  3. Hannah M. C. Schreier, Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl, Edith Chen,  “Effect of Volunteering on Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease in Adolescents: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” JAMA Pediatrics 167, no. 4, 2013: 327-332, doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.1100.

Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department. Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, a board-certified internist, is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.