Helping Others as a Path to Wellbeing
Often times we get so caught up in our own lives we forget to embrace others around us. Rebecca Rush is here to talk about helping others as a path to wellbeing.
Yesterday there was a knock on my door. My initial thought was, am I in trouble? When I opened the door, it was a neighbor I scarcely know outside of exchanging pleasantries about my dog (a very good boy). She offered a small bag to me, which held two banana muffins. “I’ve been baking,” she said. “Thank you so much!” I accepted. They were delicious, and I still feel the warm glow of that gesture 24 hours later.
However, I know that her happiness was increased even more in the giving. Last week, in a morning 12 step meeting, a man posted in the chat that he was desperate to find a dog to walk, out of groceries, money, and cigarettes, and unsure when his unemployment would come through. “Inappropriate!” One fellow shot back. “This is not the time!” said another. The man left the meeting before I could privately message him. He had, however, left his number in the initial message. I texted him offering to Venmo him a few bucks. He declined, stating he was not looking for handouts but for work. I convinced him to allow me to help him, even though part of my brain was shouting that I did not have the money to give. I quieted that part by enlisting another friend to split the cost.
In the end, we gave him a grocery gift card and a pack of cigarettes. I quieted my fear further by realizing I could make the cost up to myself by forgoing my weekly takeout meal. That was a week ago, and I still feel good every time I think of it. And not because I have gotten accolades for it — you are the first person I have told. Helping others carries intrinsic benefits that improve our wellbeing in every area.
Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, authors of the book, Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, conducted experiments in various parts of the world studying the difference in wellbeing after giving some subjects money to spend on themselves, and some money to spend on others. Those who spent the money on themselves reported no difference in happiness. Those who spent the money on others reported a spike in happiness. Even more curious, they found that the amount of money did not affect the outcome — the increase in happiness was the same whether the subjects were given a small amount of money or a larger amount.
Once I had a boyfriend who was terrible with managing his finances. When he found himself down to his last few dollars as he so often did he would go give that money to a homeless man. He knew there was magic in it.
Helping does not have to be financial to be of psychological benefit. Research shows that any prosocial behavior has a myriad of benefits that add up to a happier you. Helping is perhaps the ultimate win-win. Prosocial behavior helps us meet our most basic psychological needs. It increases our sense of meaning and purpose. It lowers depression. It improves our sense of interconnectedness. In short, helping others regulate their emotions helps us regulate ours. And unlike when we do kind things for ourselves, the good feelings associated with service last a long time.
In Happy Money, Dunn and Norton also found that spending on experiences gave more lasting happiness than spending on things, despite our perception that the things were a better use of money. Helping is the greatest experience of all.
A few months back, as the world plunged into darkness, my aunt, like many others, pulled out her sewing machine and began making masks. “I just felt so helpless,” she said. Helping allows us to be part of the solution.
I don’t know that I would still be sober after over ten weeks inside my apartment if I didn’t have sponsees, people new to sobriety who count on me to guide their recovery and journey through the 12 steps. A huge factor in my quitting marijuana maintenance was the fact I am a much sharper comedian without it, and completely unable to moderate, I was often on stage stoned forgetting my point. And then there was no stage. If I wasn’t in service to others, if there weren’t people counting on me to help them get and stay sober, I might have given in to the voice in my head that claimed that my sobriety was now irrelevant.
We’ve all, at this point, heard things we can do to help right now — like making masks, contributing to GoFundMes, offering to grocery shop for the vulnerable. There are so many more ways to help. And while much of that rhetoric tells you to help because you should, I am telling you to help for a very different reason. Because it will make you feel good, and that good feeling will last and go on to bring more positivity into your life.
I challenge you to give a little rather than nothing at all to the next GoFundMe you come across — it will make you feel just as good. Can’t sew? Foster a pet. It’s kitten season, the process is easier than ever, and many rescues will provide all the supplies necessary. I guarantee there is a Facebook group in your area dedicated to rescuing animals. In mid-March, I took in a terrified Flame Point Siamese gentleman who had been found in a field next to a Denny’s. While he mostly hid while he lived in my apartment, he came further out of his shell when he moved to my friend’s house the day I brought the kitten home I had planned to get since February, and from there he was adopted into a loving forever home. I opened a few cans of food and scooped a few poops, and now I get to be a part of his success story forever.
Can’t do that? Did you know that soup kitchens are still open, operating under strict social distancing and hygiene protocols, and in need of volunteers? Not a risk you can take, okay, you can bake something and share it with your friends and neighbors. A lot of people are using this time to work on their artistic projects — offer to be a reader for a budding author. Worried you don’t qualify to give good notes? Of course, you do. You’re a consumer.
If you don’t have much time, space, or money to share you can try this compliment exercise from Barbara Sher’s book Wishcraft — spend three minutes writing very specific compliments about a friend or loved one and give it to them. If they do the same for you, you will have a very accurate picture of your strengths to look at when fear and doubt creep in.
Helping others is the absolute best thing you can do. For yourself.