helperWant to feel better? Live longer? Dodge a bad mood? Lift yourself up?

It’s easy. Go help someone else!

“Helper’s high” has been well documented in study after study. For those into evidence-based medicine, three abstracts are at the end of this post. To get the strongest effects, the altruistic acts should involve direct contact and be voluntary, come from the heart.

It’s really pretty simple, says Stephen G. Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University: “To rid yourself of negative emotional states,” he said, “you need to push them aside with positive emotional states and the simplest way to do that is to just go out and lend a helping hand to somebody.” Or as author Cami Walker put it, “… it is not suggested as a cure for anything…. It’s simply a coping mechanism and a simple tool you can use that can help you change your thinking about whatever is going on. If you change your thinking, you change your experience.”

The underlying biology seems to involve a reduction of stress hormones. This suggests it may be a matter of what you focus on expands. If you dwell on your own problems, you create stress. Distracting yourself, turning your mind to positive things and others yields relaxation and less stress.

In turn, “being self-centered may be damaging to health. In one study of 150 heart patients, researchers found that people in the study who had more self-references (those who talked about themselves at length or used more first-person pronouns) had more severe heart disease and did worse on treadmill tests.” (The New York Times, “In Month of Giving, a Healthy Reward,” by Tara Parker-Pope, November 30, 2009)

Here are abstracts of three scientific studies documenting the helper’s high effect.

Volunteerism and Mortality Among the Community-dwelling Elderly
Doug Oman, Kay McMahon, Buck Center for Research in Aging and Carl E. Thoresen, Stanford University

Older residents in California were investigated prospectively for association of volunteering service to others and all-cause mortality. Potential confounding factors were studied: demographics, health status, physical functioning, health habits, social support, religious involvement, and emotional states. Possible interaction effects of volunteering with religious involvement and social support were also explored. Results showed that 31 percent of respondents volunteered, about half for more than one organization. High volunteers (2 organizations) had 63 percent lower mortality than nonvolunteers (age and sex-adjusted) with relative hazard, confidence interval. Multivariate adjustment moderately reduced difference to 44 percent, mostly due to physical functioning, health habits, and social support. Unexpectedly, volunteering was slightly more protective for those with high religious involvement and perceived social support. After multivariate adjustment, any level of volunteering reduced mortality by 60 percent among weekly attenders at religious services. Lower mortality rates for community service volunteers were only partly explained by health habits, physical functioning, religious attendance, and social support.

From chronic pain patient to peer: Benefits and risks of volunteering
Paul Arnstein RN, PhD, APRN, BC; Michelle Vidal RN, MS; Carol Wells-Federman MS, MEd, APRN, BC; Betty Morgan RN, PhD; Margaret Caudill MD, PhD. From Boston College, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Clinic, and Lemuel Shattuck Hospital

Peer volunteers have been used as cost-effective adjuncts to professional services in other settings and populations, but not a heterogeneous sample of patients with chronic pain. This study evaluated the transition from “patient” to “peer,” identifying possible benefits or harm associated with volunteering. Peers provided descriptive data and questionnaires, including measures of pain, disability, self-efficacy, and depression before and after three periods: as a patient, during training, and while volunteering. Average pain intensity scores declined while participants were patients, rose slightly before training, and dropped again after training and volunteering. A similar pattern was noted for disability. Depression scores continued to decline after initially dropping, and self-efficacy scores remained stable after the initial 40% rise as a patient. Two themes, “making a connection” and “a sense of purpose,” emerged from the narrative data. Descriptive data provided further support that volunteering benefited both patients and peers. This study supports the viability of using peer volunteers for clinical or research endeavors. Improvements in pain, disability, and depression were reported immediately after training and after volunteering for several months without evidence of harm. Despite encountering challenges, the rewards of this altruistic endeavor outweighed any frustrations experienced by volunteers with chronic pain.

Helper’s High: Volunteering Makes People Feel Good, Physically and Emotionally
By Allan Luks, Psychology Today, October 1988

An analysis of the experiences of more than 1,700 women who were involved regularly in helping others highlighted the physical effects experienced by frequent helpers. The magazine Better Homes and Gardens surveyed readers, asking them to write about their experiences: how often they helped, and their feelings, if any, when helping. They were also asked about their current health. As part of the study, the Institute for the Advancement of Health surveyed 1,500 members of a large women’s volunteer group. Frequent helpers described a physical experience similar to that had by people who exercise vigorously or meditate. Endorphins are released during positive social contact with others, creating the opposite of the body’s agitated condition under stress. Altruism needs to involve direct contact with others, and must be voluntary, to produce the effect.