Winston Churchill gifted the world with many wonderful quotes. Much of them pertain to success and not giving up, but my personal favorite of his is: “we make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” In my youth I watched my father time and time again exemplify this quote, not only in his work as a dermatopathologist, but also in how he interacted with every person he met. I still remember a time when we called a plumber to our house for a backed-up sewage line. My father let him in and led him to the bathroom with the plumbing issue, but then proceeded to roll up his sleeves and get down on the floor to help as well. After the job was complete, the plumber said to me as he was leaving “Tim, your dad is a great man. I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I’ve never had a doctor ask me if I needed help!”
My father and Winston Churchill are hardly the first people to recognize that helping others is part of a meaningful life. Thousands of years ago, Aristotle wrote that finding happiness and fulfillment is achieved “by loving rather than in being loved” and this is a common theme in the writings of numerous philosophers throughout history: our relationships with others are a central feature of a positive, well-lived life. And yet, in today’s modern world many of us seem to think that meaning will come through our achievements, dedicating all of our time to work and neglecting our interactions and relationships with others in the process.
Obviously it is normal to expect a sense of pride and fulfillment to come from our professional achievements, and I am not saying that having ambition is a path to dissatisfaction. However, I do believe that many of us can get so caught up in our own lives that we neglect how helping others is still a crucial aspect of finding meaning within it. Studies are increasingly backing this up, as new research provides more and more evidence that kind and helpful behavior causes us to feel that our lives are meaningful. Below are some examples of what these studies have found, as well as some tips on how you can find ways to help others that feel authentic to your life.
It can make you feel healthier…
One of the easiest ways to see the benefits of helping others is through its perceived effect on your physical health. A study conducted by UnitedHealthcare and VolunteerMatch found that 75 percent of those who volunteered in the past year said it made them feel “physically healthier,” and more than one-third of those who volunteered found participating helped them to better manage their chronic illnesses, compared to those who did not volunteer in the past 12 months.
Although there was no physical evidence derived from the study such as fewer trips to healthcare providers, those who volunteered self-reported having an overall better quality of life, including a higher capacity to enjoy socializing and developing deeper friendships. The self-reports also revealed the mental and emotional benefits that come with helping others: 93% of people reported an improved mood; 79% reported lower stress levels; and 88% reported increased self-esteem by giving back.
…and it can actually improve your health
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States. About one in every four deaths are a result of heart disease each year, and hypertension is a major contributor to it. Fortunately, helping others can also help you protect yourself from high pressure, with a study showing that older adults who volunteer for at least 200 hours per year decrease their risk of hypertension by 40 percent, suggesting that volunteer work may be an effective non-pharmaceutical option to help prevent the condition. Just as negative lifestyle factors such as poor diet and lack of exercise can increase your risk for hypertension, a positive lifestyle factor like helping others actually has the ability to reduce the risk of developing heart disease, making it an active step that can be taken to remain healthy as you age.
It can help your career
According to a study from the staffing firm Robert Half International, volunteering can give you a much-needed change in perspective that can help you generate new ideas and develop problem-solving skills in the workplace. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, shifting your focus away from your career and onto others can dig your mind out of a specific thought pattern or rut, allowing you to see things differently and enhance your creative thinking. The UnitedHealthcare and VolunteerMatch study also noted that those who volunteered often practiced time management and teamwork better than they did previously. Additionally, another study of over 64,000 people age 60 and up over the course of 22 years found that volunteering can enhance cognition. Participants who volunteered 100 hours a year scored about 6 percent higher in cognitive testing, on average, than those who didn’t.
Altruism is hardwired in you –– and contagious
When you neglect making helping others a priority in our lives, you lose a powerful pathway to personal growth and lasting happiness, and scientific research as of late is providing us with compelling data that supports previous anecdotal evidence. fMRI technology has revealed that giving activates the same regions of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex. This shows that not only is altruism hardwired in your brain, it is also a pleasurable experience akin to eating a chocolate bar or being intimate with a loved one.
Not only that, when one person performs a good deed it causes a chain reaction of other altruistic acts. You know those “pay-it-forward” chains that can happen at Starbucks, where one person pays for the car behind them and it starts a trend that can last for hours? Well, one study found that people are more likely to perform feats of generosity after observing another do the same, so the more you help others the more likely it is that someone in return will help you when you need it.
How to help with purpose
I’m sure that for many of you, for every time you can think of where helping someone made you feel great you can think of another instance where it evoked a much less positive feeling. Sometimes giving can make us feel depleted of our energy or even taken advantage of, which is what happens when we are helping for the wrong reasons or in the wrong ways. Find ways to integrate your own unique interests and skills with the needs of others. Growing up with two parents in the medical field, I felt a calling to continue on a similar path and became a dermatologist, and today I focus exclusively on the medical side of dermatology to help others with issues such as eczema and skin cancer. Finding ways to integrate helping others into your career can lead to fulfillment both professionally and personally, so look for ways in which you can implement giving into your daily routine. While helping others is by definition a selfless act, you can also greatly improve your own quality of life when you shift the focus from yourself.