When I make a difference in the lives of Indian children by donating shoes, my goal is to help make the world a better place, but when I see the effect it has on their lives, I also feel good myself! Recently, however, I learnt that this is not all in my head. In fact, researchers have linked making a difference with a variety of mental and physical health benefits. So, what did I learn?
Well, first of all, making a difference in someone else’s life can make us feel grateful for what we already have, as those who need our help are often going through much more difficult times. Additionally, it can distract us from our own problems; with studies finding that people suffering from chronic conditions may experience less stress and even disability when “counselling” others with the same conditions. Other research has found that volunteers may live longer and have better physical health than those who don’t volunteer, though there are other factors that may be partially responsible.
A study of over two thousand people found that, while both giving and receiving help was associated with improved mental health, giving help was more significantly linked with better mental health. However, feeling overwhelmed by others’ needs had a negative effect on health stronger than the benefits of helping others at more moderate levels. As for physical health, researchers in 1956 began to follow 427 married mothers over 30 years, in order to observe any effects of education, number of children, work, class or volunteering on health. During these 30 years, 52% of women who did not belong to any volunteer group had experienced a major illness, compared to 36% of women who did volunteer.
But why can making a difference have positive effects on our own health? Well, it turns out that helping others may have physical effects, as well as simply making us feel happier or a greater sense of purpose. A study of older adults who volunteered to massage babies in childcare centres found that they had lower levels of stress hormones. When these stress hormones are elevated for long periods of time, they can negatively affect our immune system and even our body’s tissues. In another, students who were simply asked to watch a film about Mother Theresa’s work in Kolkata showed much higher levels of a chemical that our immune systems produce to protect tissues such as the lining of the lungs. This stayed at a high level for an hour afterwards in those who were then asked to focus on times where they had loved or been loved in the past. Although you shouldn’t be skipping your morning workout, the positive energy from making a difference can also act on your body in a similar manner to exercise. Just like with the “runner’s high”, chemicals called endorphins are released by the brain, which makes us naturally feel good.
One of the things that jumped out at me the most was that the study of over two thousand people also found helping to the point of being overburdened caused more harm than good. Last month I took a week off from fighting poverty and went on a holiday to Fiji, for both my own sake and so I can do my best for the children in India. Now, I have scientific research as a reminder that I don’t have to feel guilty about taking time for self-care. It doesn’t matter what your cause is, it’s okay to take time off from even thinking about it, whether you’re relaxing in the bath, playing the latest Pokemon game or going on holiday. Moderation is the key to avoiding burnout; we need a balance between self-interest and helping others.
Until we meet again.