Our basic premise is: Your body is amazing. You get a do-over; it doesn’t take that long, and isn’t that hard if you know what to do.
In these columns, we give you a short course in what to do. We want you to know how much control you have over your quality and length of life. And this month, we want you to know how concentrating on making a difference keeps you younger and happier.
For some, happiness is a bottle of wine shared with your romantic interest. For others, happiness is a silent walk on the beach in a light rain. Whatever your particular definition of happiness may be, we believe that one major factor could be that you believe you make a difference.
Almost every study of longevity indicates one secret that makes people healthier and happier: helping others. Some research shows a 60 percent decrease in mortality figures among those who help others; they’re aided by what’s called the “helper’s high.” Specifically, it’s the dignity, the joy, the passion and the purpose of helping others that have these beneficial effects, whether you’re helping another person quit smoking, building a home for a family in need or mentoring a child at school.
People who donate money are happier than people with the same amount of money who don’t donate to others. Helping others inspires gratitude for what life has given you, and this is what really turbo-charges your happiness and helps you define your own purpose in life. After all, the real secret may be realizing that true peace isn’t about being happy, giddy and feeling as if you’re charged up on caffeine all the time. It’s about slowing down enough to realize that you have a lot of gifts—gifts that you should be passing along to others.
We wear scrubs, not collars. We deliver medicine, not sermons. And our specialty is biology, not theology. So we’re not going to stand at a pulpit and try to deliver Ten Commandments for moral living. However, to dismiss the very distinct link between looking, feeling and being a beautiful being would be a great mistake. So we are going to stand here and offer our prescription for doing the right thing, making a difference and finding a happier you. So try these tips to make a difference.
Give, then pass. There are few feelings in the world that surpass knowing you’ve helped someone—whether it’s through a financial donation or a mentoring program, or giving up your seat on a crowded bus. It feels good— and is good. So good, in fact, that some researchers have found that the effect of giving, of altruisms small and big, is similar to the so-called runner’s high (the rush of endorphins). But unlike exercise euphoria, this rush can last a long time. The evidence: 90 percent of people who experience this high give their health condition a better grade than those who don’t.
The reason? It seems that charity might really start at home. Your thoughts about helping others help you. These thoughts seem to be able to do things in your body that strengthen your immune system, boost positive emotions, decrease pain and provide stress relief. Separate studies show that charitable heart attack patients recover faster than those who aren’t, and those who do volunteer work have death rates 60 percent lower than those who don’t.
But here’s the catch: When you give something to somebody, we want you to find a way to allow that person to have the dignity of passing it along to someone else. Though people very often need help, they also don’t want to feel like charity cases. They want to feel that they can also pass something along to others. This also makes giving more attractive, since you are really priming the pump of a chain reaction that will help many more people than the one group you targeted with your kindness. So be explicit in your giving and ask how the recipient will pass it forward. Try to pick situations where this expectation is clear.
Pass the passion. While many people think they should give to charity or do something to give back, that’s not the only concept that’s important. It’s not the obligation to give back but the privilege of doing something bigger than yourself. You don’t have to donate money, just time and passion. You don’t have an obligation to society to find a bigger purpose—you have an obligation to your own health and happiness. And the more you value what you are doing with your mind, the more you’ll do healthier things with your body. Show gratitude. Any parent raising a child knows how much time is spent teaching that child some manners. Say thank you when someone gives you a present. Say thank you when somebody holds the door. Say thank you when the server notices you left your child’s favorite toy under the booth and rushes out of the restaurant to give it to you.
As adults, it’s important that we take that thank you to the next level. Try practicing your gratitude on a regular basis, going so far as to send handwritten thank you notes from time to time. You’ll reap rewards even as you give gratitude to others. Some research shows that 15 minutes of daily gratitude can dramatically decrease stress hormones in your body.
So take some time this week to give back, and see how much healthier you begin to feel.