As we enter the holiday season this week there are often many opportunities to volunteer our time, talents, and money to worthy causes directed to those who may be less fortunate than ourselves. Collecting food for the hungry, toys for children without many resources, or working at a local soup kitchen all help others enjoy a better holiday season than they might otherwise but it makes us feel good too.
Many people report that helping others feels good, often claiming that they get more out of the experience than those with whom they help. However, what you might not know is that there is research that has demonstrated that doing the right thing for others helps us to do the right thing for ourselves.
For example, many colleges and high schools offer students alternative Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring breaks. At Santa Clara University where I am a psychology professor, these alternative vacations are very popular. Students work with the poor and marginalized of society rather than take a relaxing vacation focused on their own needs and pleasures. Some of these experiences are based in local social service agencies (such as a local homeless shelter) while others occur overseas.
My students and I have conducted and published several studies where we assess compassion, stress management, well being, spiritual fulfillment, and so forth before they leave for a service oriented trip, immediately upon their return, and several months later in a follow up assessment and compare their responses to other students (matched by age and gender) who choose not to go on these alternative community based learning experiences.
After complex statistical analysis, we find that not only are students who help others more compassionate once they return from an immersion service trip and also at follow up, but they also have higher well being and stress management scores too!
We don't know exactly why those who help others obtain these benefits but we believe that it may likely be due to the perspective that they receive while working with those who have much less than they do. They perhaps see that their lives are advantaged relative to others and thus hassles and disappointments don't seem so bad in comparison. How can you be bothered by the size of your dorm room, or the stress of final exams, or by not having the latest iphone when others suffer and struggle? These students developed more gratitude and reasonable expectations for themselves when they compare their lives to those of others.
My colleague, Professor Carl Thoresen, at our Spirituality and Health Institute here at Santa Clara University in fact found that those who volunteer an average of 2 hours per week throughout their lives have a 40% lower mortality rate than those who don't! In his remarkable study with his former student, Dr. Alex Harris now at the Palo Alto VA Hospital, he found that regular volunteering actually was associated with a longer life.
Doing the right thing for others means helping those in need. Being with them as equals in solidarity is important too rather than behaving in an one-up or superior position. While we perhaps are more likely to volunteer or help others during the holiday season starting with Thanksgiving, we might want to consider doing so year round. It's the right thing to do for others and it's the right thing to do for ourselves as well. A win-win situation!