Helping Really Helps

Helping Really Helps



Written for Unleash Potential

By Cecily Stoddard Stranahan



A few years ago, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving found me frustrated and edgy. It wasn’t because I had 16 people coming and hadn’t made my perfect pies yet. Nothing like that. It was, simply, that I hadn’t done anything for anyone else: for anyone who’s Thanksgiving might not happen at all. Ordinarily I respond to one of the many requests that show up in the mail, but this year I wanted to buy real food, buy it myself. I had tossed out all the paper pleas thinking that surely a way to accomplish what I hoped would reveal itself, but it hadn’t. Now it was almost The Day and I had helped no one.


As I pulled into Stop and Shop, Westport, near the entrance of the store I spied my Yoga teacher from Yoga4Everybody standing with a small group, all of them wearing bright blue aprons that said in white letters, FOOD BANK.


Perfect. She gave me a list of what to buy and I bought a Thanksgiving meal for a family I would never see. Handing the food over to some cheerful young people, also clad in blue aprons, I left the store feeling relaxed and happy.


Everybody knows that helping is a two way street. We feel better when we help someone else: anyone . . . with anything. It doesn’t have to be a big deal; holding a door for a stranger laden with packages can lift our spirits. Psychology Today calls this the “helper’s high.” (New York Times, Dec. 1, 2009) What is amazing is that actual data exists to support what we are aware of experientially.


“It’s about stepping out of your own story long enough to make a connection with someone else,” says Cami Walker, a victim of multiple sclerosis, who, according to the New York Times, (Dec 1 2009) decided to give a gift to someone each day for 29 days. The results of her plan? Walker became “more mobile and less dependent on pain medication. The flare ups that routinely sent her to the emergency room have stopped and scans show that the disease has stopped progressing.”


Stephen G Post, director of The Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University, says about Walker’s experience, “‘There’s no question that it gives life greater meaning when we make this shift in the direction of others . . . But it also seems to be the case that there is an underlying biology involved.’”


 The Times reports further that “the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, CA,” found that “elderly people who volunteered for more than four hours a week were 44 percent less likely to die during the study period.”


Seniors! No curling up with Dr. Phil and Oprah. We have to get out there and help. Did you ever dream that prepping mountains of food in your church or synagogue kitchen might add to your life span?


The Times article goes on to say that “altruism may be an antidote to stress. A Miami study of patients with HIV found that those with strong altruistic characteristics had lower levels of stress hormones.”


“By contrast,” we are informed in the same article, “in one study of 150 heart patients, those who talked about themselves at length or used more first person pronouns had more severe heart disease and did worse on treadmill tests.”


 That’s it: young or old, no more lengthy monologues about ourselves. A sincere interest in others pays off even on the treadmill!


Analyzing two separate surveys of a total of 3,200 women who regularly volunteered,  a 1988 Psychology Today article described a physical response from volunteering, similar to the results of vigorous exercise or meditation.


Every religious tradition urges generosity. It’s not about striving for sainthood; it’s far simpler than that. Caring for each other enhances all of our lives. As Dr. Post of Stony Brook put it, “’To rid yourself of negative emotional states you need to push them aside with positive emotional states. And the simplest way to do that is to just go out and lend a helping hand to somebody.’”


Pretty convincing stuff, wouldn’t you say?


Written for Unleash Potential by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at