Why Doing Good Is Good for the Do-Gooder
From Hurricane Harvey flooding Houston to Hurricanes Irma and Maria ripping through the Caribbean to wildfires burning Northern California, cities and charities have been flooded with donations and volunteers. The outpouring of support is critical for helping affected communities to recover. But acts of generosity benefit the do-gooder, too.
“Research suggests that these community social connections are as important for resilience to disaster is as physical material like disaster kits or medical supplies,” explained Ichiro Kawachi, a professor of social epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “Voluntarism is good for the health of people who receive social support, but also good for the health of people who offer their help.”
The day after Cristina Topham evacuated her home as a result of the fires in Sonoma, Calif., she and her boyfriend immediately looked for ways to donate and help.
“I just felt like I had to do something. I love my town and my community, and the reach of the destruction was astonishing from the very beginning,” she said.
Why is the first instinct for many to volunteer and donate after a natural disaster? One reason is that as humans we’ve evolved to survive in groups, not alone. Rallying together makes us feel less alone in the experience, explained the sociologist Christine Carter, a fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
“When our survival is threatened, we are going to reach out and strengthen our connections with people around us. We show generosity. We show compassion. We show gratitude. These are all emotions that function to connect us with each other,” Dr. Carter said.
Scientific evidence supports the idea that acts of generosity can be beneficial when we volunteer and give back regularly — and not just after a natural disaster. Volunteering is linked to health benefits like lower blood pressure and decreased mortality rates.
Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been studying the effects of positive emotions, such as compassion and kindness, on the brain since the 1990s. He said the brain behaves differently during an act of generosity than it does during a hedonistic activity.
“When we do things for ourselves, those experiences of positive emotions are more fleeting. They are dependent on external circumstances,” he said. “When we engage in acts of generosity, those experiences of positive emotion may be more enduring and outlast the specific episode in which we are engaged.”
Helping others also gives us a sense of purpose. Dr. Linda Fried co-founded Experience Corps, a program that engages retirees as literacy tutors, after she discovered a strong association between a sense of purpose and well-being throughout life. Older adults who volunteered to help children with reading and writing tended to experience less memory loss and maintain greater physical mobility, one study suggested.
My dearest Shosh and Jaialai:
These days, it seems like every day brings bad news. Terrorism in New York City. Hurricanes in the Atlantic. Shootings. It’s enough to make you want to pull the covers over your head and not get out of bed.
If you need to take a mental health day, do it. There were times during my practice — after working 12-13 hour days for 6-7 days per week for weeks on end — when I simply had to take the day off and head into the mountains to blow steam, recharge, and put life into perspective. There, on the mountain top, I would be reminded, in the greater scheme of things, that the “crises” I deal with at work are insignificant.
The other valuable thing that gives me perspective is volunteerism. As mentioned yesterday, volunteerism was a mainstay in my life for a long time. When younger, I tutored kids, interpreted for schools and churches, helped carry groceries for our elderly neighbors, etc. As I got older, my involvement became more substantial. For example, I researched and wrote policies to help the homeless and prevent them from freezing to death on cold winter nights, represented asylum seekers with court filings and appearances to help them gain refugee status, helped victims of domestic violence get protection from their abusers. I also continued to help feed the poor, build houses for the disenfranchised, etc.
Your grandmother, on my side of the family, taught us at a young age that (1) you are never too young to help others, and (2) it does you good to help others. My greatest take-aways from my childhood were to choose friends with care, and to help others whenever I could. Even today, at 90 years old, your grandmother is still volunteering and helping those less fortunate than her. She is making a huge difference in the lives of those she helps.
Grandma’s actions and lesson for us has support in the wisdom of the ancients. Per Robin Sharma’s The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari,
[T]he sages of the Himalayas guided their lives by a simple rule: he who serves the most, reaps the most, emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. This is the way to inner peace and outer fulfillment.”
Science also bears out the wisdom of her lesson. As stated in article above, doing good is actually good for do-gooder. Among other things, it contributes to more enduring positive emotions and a sense of well-being, gives our lives purpose, connects us to our fellow human beings, lowers blood pressure, reduces memory loss and increases mobility as we get older, and decreases mortality rates.
Generally, volunteering is good for you over the course of your life, and specifically and in the shorter run, it helps you get into good colleges. Top colleges care about more than your grades and SAT score. They want to invest in the future of those who are not only takers, but also givers. Kids who spend all their time studying and being tutored put themselves in the receiving end of others’ efforts. There is nothing special about that.
Colleges, employers, and good people want to be associated with those who help others and who give back to the community, not just take and benefit from the community in which they find themselves. Asian families tend to over-focus on the importance of grades and under-focus on the importance of personal growth. That’s their failing. I don’t care how smart you are or how studious you are: as an employer, I would never hire you or invite you to join my team if you could not collaborate with others, communicate with others, help others, or translate what you learned into actionable items.
That said, remember, volunteering is not about padding your resume — although that is a short term benefit. Helping others is a way of life. I promise that if you help others, you will get as much, if not more, out of the experience than the person you are helping.
Be good. Be you. Be the best you possible. Help others when possible. Be a humanist.
All my love, always,