Ralph Waldo Emerson may have said it best: “It is one of the beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely help another without helping himself.”

And what Emerson knew in his heart nearly 200 years ago we now know to be scientific fact. The evidence is clear: we really do help ourselves by helping others. We really do get hope by giving hope.

Now, I’m no scientist, so I won’t ask you to take my word on all this.  Instead I will share with you what Dr. Dacher Keltner shared with me.  Dr. Keltner is the author of “Born to be Good” and one of nation’s leading experts on the science of human emotion.  I asked him to help explain the mechanics of hope, and here’s what he told me:

“We have parts of our brain and nervous system linked to dopamine and oxytocin circuits that are activated when we give and serve, so when we give hope to others … we derive very deep pleasure--pleasure that is as strong as when we receive hope, ourselves.”

Dr. Keltner, a professor at U.C. Berkeley, is co-founder of the university’s Greater Good Science Center, for which Emiliana Simon-Thomas serves as science director.  I asked her to weigh in on this science, as well.

“We are biologically equipped to empathize, care-give and importantly, experience pleasure when providing support,” Dr. Simon-Thomas told me. “The Vagus Nerve helps us transcend self-focus to affiliate and connect, while brain pathways that speak in oxytocin and dopamine build trust and affection and reinforce the desire to relieve other people’s pain and suffering. According to science, engaging these systems by attuning to others and lending support leads to better health, well-being and social functioning.”

Okay, so back to a simple layperson’s--field tested, but unscientific--perspective.  In my many years of serving as a national spokesperson for mental health, I have found, again and again, that imparting hope to others gives me great hope.  It fuels my resilience in ways I can’t begin to understand or explain.  I hear similar things from so many others I’ve met who are deeply immersed in advocacy.  But I’ve also come to realize that not everyone has the hope-giving opportunities that we established advocates do, and that’s why I am pleased so share with you one option you might consider exploring.

It’s called Project Hope Exchange, and it’s a joint initiative of my own nonprofit, The Adversity 2 Advocacy Alliance, and another wonderful nonprofit called Life Vest Inside.  The concept is simple: collect, aggregate, and share 30-second audio messages of hope from individuals who have survived some kind of adversity to others who are currently facing that same adversity--and in so doing, allow anyone, anywhere the chance to experience the “hope exchange” phenomenon. If you’re interested, take two minutes to watch this video and visit the Project Hope Exchange website.  

One way or another, I hope you will put Emerson’s profound notion--and the very latest brain science--to the test, and discover for yourself that we truly do get hope by giving hope.  I’ll look forward to reading about your own experiences below.

About the Author

Jeff Bell

Jeff Bell is the founder of the nonprofit Adversity 2 Advocacy Alliance and the author of When In Doubt, Make Belief.

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