Karolyn A. Gazella

The Healing Factor

The Ultimate Mind-Body-Spirit Medicine

Thinking of service in an entirely new way

Posted May 02, 2013

Would you believe there’s a secret that can heal depression, prevent heart disease, and help us live longer? Even more impressive, it doesn’t come in a bottle or with a hefty price tag.

In fact, it’s not in taking something that you’ll find all these health benefits; it’s in giving. Volunteering, or service, helps not just those being served, but those doing the work as well. Several studies have proven this “goodwill effect,” showing that the act of volunteering and giving has powerful healing benefits.

A 2007 National & Community Service report described a significant body of research demonstrating that volunteers have lower rates of depression, greater functional ability as they age, and even longer lives than non-volunteers. The report also describes several studies that indicate volunteers feel less stressed and happier than those who do not volunteer.

Perhaps more fascinating are the studies showing these benefits come not just from volunteering one’s time, but from giving in general. A study published last year in the journal PLoS ONE showed that toddlers were happiest when they were giving a treat away—even more so than when they were receiving a treat themselves. Amazingly, the researchers also concluded that the toddlers’ happiness was amplified when the giving involved sacrifice on their part. Even a 2-year-old knows that it feels good to give.

But to truly understand the healing power of service, we must let go of our preconceived notions of what service is. Let’s expand our view beyond the actions of an unselfish volunteer into the realm of mind and spirit.

A Service State of Mind

My favorite mind-body-spirit icon, Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, states, “When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole.” Many of us think of serving as helping. While that is one definition of the word, it’s also true that service is a state of mind, rather than an isolated action.

To have a service state of mind is to continually and subconsciously practice unexpected acts of kindness—regardless of what we will receive in return. Service is a way of being, not doing. Service is not just in what we do, it’s in what we say, what we feel, and most importantly, how we make others feel.

Having a service spirit is to be compassionate of others and embrace a gentle, caring energy that is exemplified by our words and actions. The service spirit has an openness characterized by a thoughtful, consistent practice of mindful listening and authentic interaction. It is a service state of mind, and it just so happens, it could also make us healthier and happier in the same ways traditional acts of service can.