Helping Others and Myself
When I was young, maybe eight or nine, my Dad decided we ought to begin this ritual: on Christmas, first thing in the morning, he would take his four children down to his diner, where we would serve breakfast for free. You would think that, given my age, starting Christmas morning by carrying hot plates and doing dishes instead of opening my stocking would have been, at minimum, a mild annoyance; at worst, downright despised. But my feelings were the complete opposite.
Far from feeling put upon or resentful, I felt downright joyful! Knowing how happy this made people filled my heart.
More than twenty years later, I do not remember any details about opening a stocking or eating a nice breakfast on Christmas morning. But I can clearly recall myself carrying plates of food (simple: eggs and toast), over and over, setting them down, seeing the smiles, hearing the sincere words of gratitude. Those memories—not to mention the smells, the sounds—are forever etched, surpassed only by the knowing of how much joy that act brought me.
Turns out, that high I felt has a name: psychologists call it “helpers high.” Our brains actually release feel-good chemicals when we help someone, leading us to do more of the same.
But whether it’s chemical or something more sublime, helping others is not only good for us, but good for humanity. That’s because kindness is catching. Those we help in turn become inspired to do something altruistic themselves. In this way, “paying it forward” has a domino effect ad infinitum. It is limitless!
It is also healing. During one of the hardest years of my life, the year my Dad passed away, I somehow intuitively sought out opportunities to help others, knowing doing so would help the depression that was knocking at my door.
Through my local church, I helped plan a spa day for women struggling with poverty. I gave pedicures, massaging their feet and painting their toes. I had never given a pedicure before and felt ill-equipped, but carried on regardless. It wasn’t perfection I was after, but just doing the best I could.
I followed the “do your best, forget the rest” motto into many of moments helping others, and this always seemed to work. What I discovered though was that I received much more than just that “feel-good high.” Praying for others, in particular, seemed to give me as much or more as it did those receiving the prayer. I received insight into my own issues: sometimes, I saw a problem from a new perspective; sometimes, there was new clarity or insight. Not all in that moment, but over time.
Helping others also freed me from this “payback” mindset. At times, I have been guilty of wondering how I would be repaid by those I have helped. But this expectation simply robbed both the joy of giving and its other rewards.
Changing that mindset, for me, began with participating in volunteer work that brought me joy: helping nursing mothers through La Leche League. The two other Leaders shared with me this vision of giving that was larger than anything I had previously experienced. Together, we created a web page, social media pages and monthly newsletters. We hosted play dates and, with the help of many in the community, put together a launch party. I wrote press releases and sought out vendors and donations.
This larger scale approach to giving taught me a powerful lesson. Giving is more than just showing up. It really does involve a tribe. And the more you become involved, the greater your participation. It reveals the importance of community and value of paying it forward.
Helping others is also a central part of how I am healing from Hashimoto’s. Through my IG account, I share with others what has worked for me, from diet to lifestyle change. This has been so valuable to me that I’ve found myself wondering: could those with autoimmune conditions see improvement from their symptoms if helping others was part of their healing protocol? Given that helping others raises self esteem by increasing social connectedness, and that loneliness and autoimmune conditions often go hand in hand, I’d say there’s a strong chance helping others would speed the healing process.
With all the benefits of helping others, perhaps it should be seen as a practice: ongoing and consistent. Helping monthly, weekly or even daily (as opposed to once a year) makes it become part of our identity. Even more importantly, it becomes part of our community’s identity. And indeed, studies do show that consistency is key to experiencing the psychological benefits of giving.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that helping others is something we ALL can do—regardless of age, gender, background or experience. In this way, helping others is a huge leveler. It erases the boundaries we often form between ourselves, a reminder that we are all part of a community, a body of souls that all have something to offer.