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The Science of Helping Out

At a time when we are all experiencing an extraordinary level of stress, science offers a simple and effective way to bolster our own emotional health. To help yourself, start by helping others.

Much of the scientific research on resilience — which is our ability to bounce back from adversity — has shown that having a sense of purpose, and giving support to others, has a significant impact on our well-being.

Our bodies and minds benefit in a variety of ways when we help others. Some research has focused on the “helper’s high.” Studies show that volunteering, donating money, or even just thinking about donating money can release feel-good brain chemicals and activate the part of the brain stimulated by the pleasures of food and sex. Studies of volunteers show that do-gooders had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol on days they did volunteer work.

The challenge many of us are facing today is how to give support from a distance. Rules that require us to be physically apart during the pandemic mean that our traditional ways of volunteering in person are no longer possible. The good news is that the type of support that can be helpful to both giver and receiver can be given in a variety of small and big ways. It can include giving money or time to a cause. Or it can be as simple as a phone call, giving advice or just lending a listening ear.

Dr. Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, said we often are better at giving advice to people other than ourselves. “One of the best things you can do is call someone else facing a similar problem and talk them through it,” said Dr. Grant, who co-founded an online networking platform called Givitas, which connects people for the purpose of asking for and giving support and advice. “When you talk other people through their problems, you come up with wiser perspectives and solutions for yourself.”

Feeling responsible for other people also can help us cope with whatever challenges life brings. Emily A. Greenfield, an associate professor of social work at Rutgers University, studied a concept called “felt obligation,” which is measured by asking people questions such as how obligated they would feel to give money to a friend in need, even if it meant putting themselves in a bind.

As it turned out, the people who had higher levels of felt obligation — meaning they were the type of people to sacrifice for others — coped better with their own life challenges.

“These findings fit with the idea that an orientation to helping others is a protective factor — something that is especially important for well-being when confronted with distressing life circumstances,” Dr. Greenfield said.

She noted that caring for others helps us to regulate our own emotions and gain a sense of control. “When we remind a friend that social distancing measures are temporary, and this too shall pass, we are also, in effect, reminding ourselves and serving to regulate our own emotions,” she said.

Excerpted from “The Science of Helping Out” in The New York Times. Read the full article.

Source: The New York Times | The Science of Helping Out, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/well/mind/coronavirus-resilience-psychology-anxiety-stress-volunteering.html | © 2020 The New York Times Company

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