On Your Health

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How Volunteering Can Make You Healthier and Happier

08 June 2016

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Today we have a post from our guest blogger, R. Murali Krishna, M.D., who is the former president and chief operating officer of INTEGRIS Mental Health.

I recently received a letter from a man who told me of the impact I’d had on him when he attended one of the seminars I offer throughout the country on the mind-body-spirit connection.

This man is now approaching midlife, but when he was younger his mother suffered from manic depression. His mother’s illness was so severe it eventually drove her to shoot and kill his father. This man who wrote me spent many years grappling with this family tragedy.

It haunts him still.

Eventually, however, he decided to cope with his own pain by serving others. After attending one of my seminars, he volunteered his services to a local hospice organization, a place where the terminally ill can die with dignity and peace.

Most of us are fortunate enough to avoid terrible tragedies. But each of us experiences pain, sadness and loneliness. One of the best ways to overcome these feelings is to connect with others through service.

It’s one of the fundamental ways I suggest people can achieve balanced lives, whether through volunteering in the community or through finding a quieter connection with someone.

We must serve others to feel like human beings. Serving others provides a spiritual connection. Mother Theresa told us that God comes to us through suffering human beings. We can’t all be Mother Theresa. But we each possess inner strengths and talents given to us so we can share them with others.

Such service certainly has altruistic rewards. It makes us less self-centered. It increases our empathy. It expands our life experiences beyond the narrow realm of what we encounter at work or on television. We gain a healthier perspective on life.

The Helper's High

Service and volunteerism may also have an impact beyond simply making us feel better about ourselves. Recent research suggests serving others can have a physical impact on your health. It’s been called “the helper’s high,” and it may even have a positive effect on the immune system. Information in this area is still emerging, but a few studies stand out:

  • A study by the University of Michigan showed that life expectancy increases for people who volunteer (a 250 percent increase for men in the study).
  • Another study conducted over a ten-year period found a two-and-a-half-fold decrease in overall mortality for those who attended volunteer philanthropic group activities regularly when compared with those who did not volunteer.
  • The Duke Heart Center Patient Support Program at Duke University in North Carolina suggests that former cardiac patients who have volunteered to help newly diagnosed patients may improve their own mood and alter their psychoneuroimmunological function (a technical term for the connection between the mind, the nervous system and the immune system).
  • A study of Japanese elderly found that, regardless of gender, those who provide assistance to others rated their health more favorably than older adults who were less involved in their communities.

More studies at Yale, Johns Hopkins, University of California, National Institute of Mental Health and Ohio State University support similar findings.

Why? Scientists theorize the good feelings that come from volunteering may release chemicals called neuropeptides that bolster the immune system and provide a sense of well-being.

Human biology seems to be designed in such a way that it drives us to satisfy our sensations. We want to own things. We want to taste savory food, to smell lovely fragrances, to hear beautiful music or to sleep on the softest sheets. We want to feel secure and comfortable.

There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to fulfill these needs. After all, we are hardwired for desires and aspirations.

The Missing Link

Nevertheless, most people feel deep down that something is missing from their lives if they only focus on their own needs. Within each human being, I believe we possess a deep need to make a difference in the lives of others. Often, stress or the layers of obligations that can accumulate in our lives have buried this innate awareness. Serving others can stimulate this inner core once again, bringing it to life.

The social connection provided through serving others also makes us aware of fundamental truths. First among them: We are each born with a guaranteed return ticket. When you wrestle with this fact, you’ll also begin to understand you are surrounded by fellow travelers -- each with an ending no different from your own. Once you glimpse this certainty, you might allow yourself to ask, “What will be my ending? What can I contribute to aid other human beings as we travel through this life?”

Life is like a training ground. We learn the lessons we choose to engage in. Volunteering and serving others teach us the highest lessons with the noblest results. We learn that our lives have meaning. We raise ourselves to a purpose beyond our own immediate needs.

How to do it?

Make it a part of your daily life. Don’t forego the other parts of your life -- your family, your job, or your leisure time. And don’t overload yourself with burdensome volunteer commitments. You won’t be connecting with anyone, and you won’t be reaping the physical and psychological benefits either. Objectively measure your time and your commitments.

At the same time, don’t wait until the end of the year to simply write a check. Do something that has meaning for you.

The smallest actions can make a difference, accumulated over time. Each day, when I interact with someone, I try to offer a word of comfort or encouragement. I try to connect with people in the present moment. I try to create optimism. In this small way, I am not matching the enormous accomplishments of Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Theresa. But I am making a difference. I am serving others.

Simply being involved with your neighborhood association or in the philanthropic endeavors of your religious congregation can function in the same way. And these are easy ways to involve your family, too.

There is something essentially right about this balanced addition to our lives. You’ll find making the time to serve others will provide you with more energy, instead of taking it away. And as medical research is beginning to suggest, you’re likely to live a longer and happier life as a result.

If you are interested in becoming a part of the INTEGRIS Volunteer Auxiliary program, see the information on the website or call 405-949-3183.

In addition to his work at INTEGRIS, Dr. Krishna is the founding president/president emeritus of the Health Alliance for the Uninsured, a partnership to improve the health care of the uninsured and under-insured in Oklahoma County. Dr. Krishna is also a clinical professor of Psychiatry at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, past president of the Oklahoma County Medical Society, past president of the Oklahoma Psychiatric Association, and a distinguished life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.