Self Improvement — 24 December 2003
Helping other people is emotionally healthy for you

We have all been advised that giving is better than receiving. We also know that giving to others makes us feel better. Now we also learn through new research that being helpful may grant us with better mental health.

A survey was done by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School of 2,016 Presbyterian Church members who were asked how often they “made others feel loved and cared for” or “listened to others” in their congregation. The data concluded that those who helped others experienced better mental health than those who did not do so.

This research failed to clarify whether being helpful contributes to health or that mentally healthy people are better able to help. Either way, helpers are blessed with greater emotional well being. The researchers reasoned that the givers were able to focus outwardly and therefore were less concerned with their own distress and/or were better able to put it in perspective.

Goethe has beautifully stated the significance of being kind and helpful to others: “Noble be man, Helpful and good! For that alone sets him apart from every other creature on earth.” Though some animals like lions, dolphins and apes will help injured mates and other members of the species, the capacity to help by caring through listening is uniquely human.

An interesting additional finding of the above research found that those who gave beyond their own resources reported being in worse mental health. Even kind and giving behaviors must be regulated in accordance with one’s abilities. Being excessively attentive to others at the expense of oneself renders the helper more inclined to report being anxious and depressed.

What is clear from these findings is that helping others by listening to them, caring about them and assisting them in feeling loved, is of great value. This addresses the notion that mattering to another person is helpful to both the receiver and the giver.

In this study no practical help was offered beyond love and attention, which I believe to be the greatest healers. When we feel valued through attention from others, our spirits are lifted and our sense of importance is strengthened.

In relationships, attentive listening and caring help children thrive, students achieve, workers produce, friendships blossom, and mates achieve greater intimacy.

Couples who share daily conversation with interest and caring develop a feeling of being loved and valued that intensifies with time. Those couples who tend to ignore each other, avoid the daily attentive moments, help neither themselves nor their children. Loving behaviors are learned and emulated by children. They also take these practices of caring with them to adulthood and future partnerships.

Being attentive, supportive and caring should be our basic approach to others. It is of great value to tell service people how helpful they have been, how much we appreciate their competency, kindness and service. It takes little energy to listen to other people’s words and respond in an affirming and supportive way. It takes no extra time to make eye contact with people to validate their presence. The superficial chitchat on line may actually be the only human contact some people have and your smile may brighten their day.

An elderly woman I know counts the smiles, nods and welcoming words she receives daily. She speaks with delight about how nice people are and rejoices with the notion that they seem to like her. Those small personal encounters are the highlight of her week.

We can all learn to be more responsive to others, it may help them and us at the same time. Choosing to connect with others throughout our day in a more appreciative manner puts us in a better frame of mind and helps create a general atmosphere of love and caring between people. “Random acts of kindness” is a bumper sticker slogan that can indeed remind us that helping others benefits both the giver and the recipient and creates a better emotional environmrnt for all of us.

To be more helpful to others you may choose to:

  • Decide to be more attentive to your partner, children, parents, friends and others.
  • Listen to their words and convey your caring for them.
  • Make eye contact, nod, smile, and respond to others with supportive comments.
  • Remember your co-workers’ children and spouses names and crucial events in their lives. Show concern for the pains and joys of other people’s lives.
  • Let others know how much you appreciate their help – even if it is part of their job.
  • Smile at seniors and children – you brighten their day.
  • Be pleasant and aware of others’ needs for being noticed, heard and supported.

Great deeds of kindness may not be possible for us to do daily. Yet, in small ways we can all help each other feel valued, increase every ones mental health and sense of well being and create a better world for all.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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