How Helping Others Improves Your Mental Wellbeing
Not long after the onset of the pandemic I was feeling, like countless other human beings on the planet, a sense of helplessness more profound than anything I’d ever experienced. I was at the mercy of a virus that couldn’t be controlled and was wreaking havoc around the globe. I read heartbreaking stories about people losing their loved ones suddenly; about people dying alone because of the necessary restrictions imposed in health care facilities; about the I’m normally a pretty action-oriented person. My response to a challenge is typically to problem-solve and find a way around it. In March 2020 I felt like despite the alarming things that were happening in the world and the threat that was beginning to unfold here in Canada, there was absolutely nothing I could do. I was left twiddling my thumbs and simply waiting to see what would happen next.
It wasn’t long before we started hearing about how on top of the obvious danger to our physical health, the mental health impact of the pandemic was significant. Social disconnection, financial stress and fear took a toll on our respective mental states quickly. I’ve written in previous blog posts (like THIS ONE) about how very interconnected the different components of our overall health are, and how important it is to acknowledge that good social health is a biological need. Social health goes beyond human-to-human contact and maintaining meaningful relationships with others; it’s also about a sense of purpose, a feeling that you’re contributing something important to the world around you.
Some believe that as a species human beings are ultimately selfish creatures who act in our own best interests at all times. Research on social health defies this notion, suggesting we’re more social than selfish. Helping others triggers a chemical change in the brain wherein dopamine and serotonin are released, which enhance our mood, as well as oxytocin, commonly known as the “love hormone” which prompts warm, fuzzy feelings of closeness and connection with others. This counteracts the effects of cortisol, the stress hormone. A sense of belonging, contributing to society or something larger than oneself and confidence in relationships all help us to feel safe and secure, which makes sense given our evolutionary history. In times when our physical safety was less secure than it generally is today – when humans encountered predators on a regular basis, for example – being part of a larger group was our best chance for survival. This translates to modern times in the sense of security we feel with our family and close friends. Helping others feeds our social wellbeing, giving us feelings of purpose, confidence in our place in society and pride in our ability to contribute. Why? All those years ago being helpful within one’s community contributed to the greater good and increased one’s value within the pack, thereby securing one’s place within it. Makes sense, right? If you’ve ever pulled up to the Tim Horton’s Drive-Thru window to be told your coffee had been paid for by the car ahead of you, your response may have been to pay for the order placed by the vehicle behind you in turn. If you’ve had that experience you know how much it brightens your day not just to be the recipient of a random act of kindness, but to be able to pay it forward as well. Reciprocity – feeling like we’re giving and taking in equal measure – in our relationships and in our roles as members of a community is a key piece of good social health. When we feel we’re consistently emptying our buckets and getting nothing in return, a relationship usually no longer feels satisfying. Likewise, feeling that others are having to dote on us and we’re unable to give back anything in return can leave us feeling unsettled, awkward, useless and embarrassed, which is why some people have difficulty accepting help from others or receiving charity even in times of need.
When we’re feeling low, we’re less inclined to think about the needs of others. This is really a backwards way of thinking since helping someone else can actually give you a boost when you need it most! Helping is a great form of self care. My last two blog posts (read them HERE and HERE) I talked about how one of the barriers to maintaining a good self care practice is the notion that in order for it to be effective you have to invest a huge amount of time, effort and energy. Not true! The best forms of self care are the ones you can reasonably integrate into your routine long-term, and for most of us that doesn’t mean spending hours upon hours each day on spa treatments and meditation. Similarly, helping someone else doesn’t necessarily mean signing on to a long-term commitment with a volunteer agency. The ultra-Canadian example I used above about the Tim’s Drive-Thru is a simple but great example of how we can brighten someone else’s day and reap the benefits of the feel-good moment sharing kindness brings us.
I’ve had a great time this week exploring ideas around helping. I’ve put together a “Quick-Start Guide to Altruism” here with 20 of my favourites:
Give someone a genuine compliment (don’t just think it – say it!).
Let someone check out ahead of you at the grocery store.
Offer to take something off the plate of a busy co-worker, like running an errand or helping them to complete a job task that’s stressing them out.
Make a purchase from a local small business.
Really mean it when you ask someone “How are you?” – and really listen to the response.
Share a positive post on social media.
Hold the door open for the person behind you.
Teach someone how to do something you enjoy, like a musical instrument, knitting or how to play a favourite board game.
Put some change in an expired parking metre.
Send someone you haven’t connected with in a while a handwritten note.
Pass along a book you’ve enjoyed.
Make a monetary donation or give your time to a cause that’s close to heart.
Send a card to residents of a long-term care home.
Write a letter to the manager/owner of a store commending an employee who’s given you great service.
Smile and say hello to a stranger.
Offer to babysit for family or friends who could use a night off from parenting duties.
Pick up litter.
Make a point of checking in on someone who might be lonely, especially if they’re isolating or living alone during the pandemic.
For the next two weeks I’ll be taking a dose of my own medicine with respect to self care: I’ll be lightening my workload over the holidays so the Workplace Wellness Weekly will be on a short hiatus. I look forward to bringing you a shiny new blog post on January 6th, 2021. I’m sending each and every reader a holiday season filled with joy, connection, gratitude and relaxation! Thanks for reading and see you in the new year.
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.