Find a “helper’s high” by being altruistic

As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, December 29, 2005

In less than a week, we will be in the post-holiday season—marked in part by a break from parties, a bit less pressure to donate to charity, and a chance to take a breath from the gift giving frenzy.  However, as you leave this season behind, you might want to consider taking the lesson of giving with you into the New Year.

Think about what it has felt like to be in a giving frame of mind. Treasure the memory of your child’s eyes lighting up when he opened his gifts. Remember the sincere thanks from the coworker whose outfit you admired. Hold onto the good feeling you had when you gave money, food or clothing to those unfortunate victims of recent natural disasters.

Many years ago, I had an “aha” experience regarding altruism. While walking around Santa Fe with a friend, a couple of Girl Scouts selling chocolate approached us. My friend purchased ten chocolate bars. This immediately generated two very broad smiles.  Knowing that he had no need for all of that candy, I was impressed and actually felt a kind a vicarious good feeling, myself, from his altruism. That small act taught me, on a visceral level, that giving feels good.

The more you consciously incorporate giving into your life, the more you bolster your innate sense of yourself as a giving person. With time, the good feelings that accompany giving will become a common experience for you. If you already do this, then you know what I’m talking about. If not, make a decision to give altruism a try.

To get a taste of what it feels like to be altruistic, look for little opportunities in day-to-day situations. Offer to let the harried person behind you in line at the cashier to go first. If a mother looks distressed managing her children and you know what that’s like, let her know she’s not alone.  Give a supportive smile to the new cashier struggling to do her job. Most importantly, pay attention to how good you feel from doing these small gestures.

If you want to maximize the benefits of giving, you can learn a lot from the results of research on altruism. One important result is that you benefit most from giving in person to strangers. Writing a check to charity and giving to your own family are not enough. Studies have shown that, over time, this particular kind of giving produces improves overall health, reduces stress, and decreases awareness of pain. In addition, helping others relieves depression by replacing negative feelings with positive feelings. It also provides a buffer from the stress, isolation, and loneliness. The result is often a  “helper’s high” that involves feeling a sense of calm, greater self-worth, and an absence of emotional stress.

Imagine enjoying the “runner’s high” without all the running! Although the results really are similar, altruism has some definite advantages. Besides not having to take time to go to the gym, you can also enjoy a kind of helper’s high afterglow just by recalling how it felt to be performing good deeds for others—something you don’t get from remembering a sweaty workout.

If the small gestures go well and you want to do more, or you are ready to go right for the “helper’s high” fix, then here are some tips on how to make the most from being altruistic:

  • Decide on a cause that is important to you. Call a local nonprofit agency representing that cause, ask for information about them and what opportunities they have for volunteers. If you can imagine enjoying those jobs, offer to volunteer.
  • Volunteer for jobs that offer the opportunity to help others in person.
  • Volunteer to help within an organization so that you can work alongside others. One study showed that volunteers who worked in a group had fewer doctor visits and enjoyed more positive feelings.
  • Make volunteering a regular part of you life.

Whatever you choose to do, make sure it comes from your heart. With your heart in a cause and your hands offering help, you will undoubtedly have a smile on your face. And, one last piece of advice: You’ve earned it. Enjoy the high!

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ