Helper’s High: How Doing Good Can Make You Feel Good

By Edie Weinstein, LSW @EdieWeinstein1 “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” — Ann Herbert The term “random acts of kindness” has long been part of the vernacular. For some people, it may take the form of paying the toll for the person behind you on the turnpike. For others, it could be leaving a care package on a neighbor’s doorstep. For Patricia Gallagher, also known as “the Flower Lady,” it’s a daily occurrence as she practices what she calls “Random Acts of Flowers.” She goes to Trader Joe’s and picks up day-old posies, which she ferries to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, veterans’ homes and shelters. Her reward is the delighted looks on the faces of those who receive the love she scatters. For Gallagher, the practice also provides a healing balm: She has faced her husband’s suicide attempts — which they wrote about in their book, “No More Secrets: A Family Speaks about Depression, Anxiety and Attempted Suicide” — as well as financial challenges and the death of both of her parents. Her mother lived by the adage attributed to theologian John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can,” and clearly passed this on to her daughter. Call to mind the last time you did something generous without expecting anything in return, including acknowledgement. Chances are, you’ll smile and feel warm inside.

Health Benefits of Altruistic Behavior

In an article called “The Science of Good Deeds,” Jeanie Lerche Davis explains this reaction: “In the last few years, researchers have looked at the so-called ‘helper’s high’ and its effects on the human body. Scientists are searching to understand just how altruism — the wish to perform good deeds — affects our health, even our longevity.” “Altruistic behavior may also trigger the brain’s reward circuitry — the ‘feel-good’ chemicals like dopamine and endorphins, and perhaps even a morphine-like chemical the body naturally produces,” she writes, citing Gregory L. Fricchione, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Fricchione adds: “If altruistic behavior plugs into that reward circuitry, it will have the potential to reduce the stress response. And if the altruistic behavior continues to be rewarding, it will be reinforced.” Stephen Post, PhD, professor of bioethics and the director of the school’s Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University in New York, sums up this research in his 2009 Health Progress article entitled “It’s Good to Be Good: Science Says It’s So”: “The ‘helper’s high’ was first described by Allan Luks, who surveyed thousands of volunteers across the United States and found that people who reached out to other people consistently stated that their health improved when they started to volunteer. About half reported experiencing a ‘high’ feeling; 43 percent felt stronger and more energetic; 28 percent experienced a sensation of inner warmth; 22 percent felt calmer and less depressed; 21 percent experienced greater feelings of self-worth, and 13 percent experienced fewer aches and pains.”

Ways to Feel the “Helper’s High”

For those in recovery, being of service is an important aspect of recreating their lives, since there may have been a time when they believed themselves to be or were perceived as self-absorbed. There are tremendous benefits to volunteering, including:

  • Getting out of the house and preventing isolation
  • Discovering and establishing a new focus and purpose
  • Focusing your attention on a recovery-oriented lifestyle
  • Meeting new people and establishing friendships that don’t revolve around drugs or alcohol
  • Learning new skills and expanding your knowledge
  • Elevating your mood and enhancing your self-esteem
  • Getting exercise and improving your physical health
  • Feeling like you make a difference
  • Being part of something outside yourself
  • Serving your community

Places to volunteer and feel the “high” of being of service include:

  • 12-step meetings through tasks such as chairing, setting up, cleaning up, making coffee/tea
  • Hospitals and nursing homes
  • Homeless shelters, food pantries and soup kitchens
  • Animal programs and shelters
  • Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP)
  • Gilda’s Club
  • Literacy programs
  • Special Olympics
  • Habitat for Humanity
  • Libraries
  • Museums
  • Places of worship

How high are you willing to be? To quote the great Jimi Hendrix: “S’cuse me while I kiss the sky.”

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