“Reciprocal Resilience”: The Unexpected Benefit of Helping

Research suggests learning to help others become resilient helps you as well.

Posted Oct 20, 2020

Source: geralt/Pixabay

Altruism may be thought of as the selfless concern for the well-being of others. Altruism can manifest in many ways, such as donating to charities, volunteering to actively participate in some project or organization that assists others, or simply performing random acts of kindness.

It is a truism that those performing altruistic acts usually report an increase in happiness, self-satisfaction, or accomplishment. But more recent research has revealed an unexpected finding. Simply said, learning to help others become resilient appears to increase the personal resilience of those learning to help.

The History of Altruism

The term altruism appears to be derived from the Old French altrui, meaning for the other, and was popularized by French philosopher Auguste Comte in the mid-1800s. The philosophical roots of altruism can be found in the second book of On Rhetoric, written by the Athenian philosopher Aristotle in the mid to late 4th-century BC. In that book, which examines numerous human emotions, he refers to kharis (kindness or a favor) as “a service to one in need, not in return for something nor so that the one who does the service may get something…”

It is important to note that Aristotle differentiates this altruistic kindness from any expectation of kindness or favor in return. Research suggests that the “warm glow” you experiences from altruistic actions is associated with the neurotransmitters dopamine and oxytocin. While the benefits of performing altruistic acts are common, can learning to be altruistic, in this case learning to help others be resilient, yield positive benefits for the learner?

Source: geralt/Pixabay

Research on the Process of Learning to Help Others

In a 2014 study from the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health Preparedness, 1,191 volunteers were trained in helping others to be resilient in the wake of adversity and disaster. Personal resilience was assessed before and after the training. Though the training did not specifically cover personal resilience, the volunteers who participated in the training left with an enhanced sense of personal resilience.

In a later study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the original resilience curriculum was replicated and expanded. Prior to the start of the training to assist others in being resilient, volunteers were queried concerning their preparedness to be personally resilient and their confidence in exercising personal resilience. Their collective responses clustered slightly higher than “unprepared” and “unconfident,” respectively.  After the training, participants were posed the same questions. Their responses clustered slightly higher than “prepared” and “confident,” respectively.  

A 2018 study from Loyola University Maryland built upon studies from Johns Hopkins. The purpose of the study was to see if the feelings of preparedness and confidence to be resilient oneself would last beyond the duration of the training. This study followed participants for one year after receiving training in helping people in distress be resilient.  

Participants who received the training in fostering resilience in others evidenced significantly higher personal resilience, significantly lower burnout, and lower secondary traumatic stress approximately one year after the training. This finding is even more interesting in that participants’ resilience increased despite experiencing an increased rate of exposure to traumatic events after the training compared to before the training. Normally we would expect an increase in burnout and vicarious trauma with an increase in exposures.

Helping and the Pandemic

In 2008, my colleagues and I wrote the following in what now appears a prescient paper,

“There is a common belief that … pandemic is not only inevitable, but that it is imminent. It is further believed by many, and even legitimized for some by a 2006 made-for-TV-movie “Pandemic,” that such a pandemic will herald an end to life as we know it. Are such claims hyperbole, or does a pandemic represent the most significant threat to public health in the new millennium? Surely any effects a disease might have upon a given population are mediated not only through the pathophysiological mechanisms of the disease itself, but through the psychological and behavior reactions that such a disease might engender.”

The pandemic of 2020 represents a challenge not only to public health but to public mental health as well. If ever there was a time for altruism, it is now! Studies on resilience consistently show that the support of others is the best predictor of human resilience. But blind, uninformed gestures of assistance can result in a less than desirable outcome and even be counterproductive.

Now there is evidence that altruism and the act of helping others not only fosters resilience in those in distress but the act of being trained in how to best assist others builds personal resilience in those who are trained to help. Such training is also likely to improve the quality of assistance provided, as well. Perhaps it's time to help ourselves by learning to help others.

© George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D.


Everly, G.S., Jr., & Lating, J.M. (2017). The Johns Hopkins Guide to Psychological First Aid. Balto: Johns Hopkins Press.

Noullet, C. J., Lating, J. M., Kirkhart, M. W., Dewey, R., & Everly, G. S., Jr. (2018). Effect of pastoral crisis intervention training on resilience and compassion fatigue in clergy: A pilot study. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 5(1), 1–7.