Strive to Thrive: Volunteering Can Give You the Gift of Well-Being

By on December 23rd, 2013 Categories: Day-to-Day Matters

Scrooge. Just uttering the name conjures up images of a callous, bitter, and miserly “bah-humbug” of a man. Scrooge’s story is inextricably linked to the holiday season and can be seen on TV, stage, and in store windows every December.

The story of Scrooge’s transformation in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” from a nasty curmudgeon to a smiling and generous gentleman remains compelling to readers over 150 years after it was published. Why? Scrooge was able to change both the course of his life and find happiness by becoming kind and charitable. Research has shown that you and I can enjoy the same “helper’s high” discovered by Scrooge all those years ago, and, like Scrooge, simultaneously improve our physical and mental health by acting charitably and volunteering our time to help others.

The term “helper’s high” was coined by psychologist Allan Luks. He found that the “helpers high” is analogous to a “runner’s high.” Luks’s research established that helping others releases endorphins in the volunteer in the same way that vigorous exercise or meditation does. He concluded that this biochemical reaction results in stress relief, which can benefit the immune system and support overall better health.

How helpful is the helper’s high? One study of women with metastatic breast cancer found that those who participated in a support group — which included support as well as requiring the women to listen and demonstrate compassion to others in the group — survived twice as long (18 months compared with 9 months) as the women who just had routine care.

In another study, individuals suffering from chronic pain experienced decreased pain intensity and decreased levels of disability and depression after training and serving as peer volunteers for several months for others suffering from chronic pain.

One significant study has shown that women who volunteer report greater happiness and long-term health. In that study, 427 women who lived in upstate New York were followed for 30 years by researchers at Cornell University. The researchers concluded that regardless of number of children, occupation, education, or social class, those women who engaged in volunteer work to help other people at least once a week lived longer and had better physical functioning, even after adjusting for baseline health status.

Beyond the physiological benefits associated with the “helper’s high,” studies have consistently shown that those who volunteer enjoy more social connectedness and increased self-confidence as well as more fun and fulfillment in their lives. And, most importantly, individuals who volunteer report feeling happier with their lives.

Although all of these studies dealt with volunteering that included direct contact with the recipient, a recent study found that simply donating money to charity made people happier than those who didn’t engage in philanthropy.  How much was donated was not significant; it was really about the act of philanthropy, meaning that a donation of as little as $10.00 could boost happiness.

So make this a December to remember others who may need support. By engaging in a random act of kindness, participating in a food or coat drive, or donating to your favorite charity, you will not only have done good — like Scrooge, you’ll feel good!

“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath… “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to every-body! A happy New Year to all the world!” ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Jean Heflin Kane lives in Devon, Pennsylvania with her husband, four children, and the real star of the family, their fluffy, fun-loving dog Toby. Jean is an attorney who founded and directs a non-profit aimed at supporting sustainability initiatives in K-12 schools. She is actively striving to be a breast cancer "thriver." She blogs at She welcomes comments and suggestions on blog topics.

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