It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Did you know that thinking about others and participating in projects for the greater good can drastically improve your physical, mental and emotional health?
Numerous studies have examined the health benefits of volunteering and being involved in social projects. The bottom line: Getting involved in something bigger than yourself and doing good for someone else improves physical and mental health.
I find the “power of looking outward,” as I like to call it, simply amazing. Many people with serious challenges in their lives have found it to be the deciding factor between mental and emotional life or death.
Take Nick Vujicic as an example. He was born without limbs, and not only did he feel different, he was different. In an interview, he admits that he actually wanted to commit suicide at the age of ten by drowning himself in a bathtub.
Life was tough for him and yet he decided to stop thinking about how miserable his situation was. Instead he focused on how he could make his contribution to the world, just the way he was. Today, he’s motivating and inspiring millions of people, young and old alike, to live life to the fullest, even in the face of obstacles. In turn, he has gone from potential suicide to living a purposeful life.
I, too, experienced the positive side effects of helping others, in particular on my mental health, during a very low point in my life.
Living and working full-time in a volunteer and missionary community of 20+ people, the responsibilities and activities of a high-paced lifestyle put a lot of weight on my shoulders. In addition to my usual workload, there were the daily phone calls from those that needed support and counsel.
Eventually I reached a point where I could give no more. I was burnt out and found being around others to be a drain rather than a joy. I couldn’t do a simple thing like sweeping the floor without feeling overwhelmed and bursting into tears. Even the things I loved doing turned into burdensome chores.
I took some time off to be on my own and to figure out what to do. Trust me when I tell you, in my weakened mental state that was a pretty hard thing to do. Panic attacks became a common occurrence as I continuously mulled over my situation.
A friend invited me to come stay with his family when he found out what I was going through. I gladly accepted. We had long conversations every day and he seemed to truly understand, having gone through something similar himself.
Partial healing took place within me as I took a distance from work and my former busy lifestyle. I slowly recovered and gained back some strength to start functioning normally again.
Yet, I constantly complained to my friend about how things weren’t going right in my life and how my situation was such a mess. I felt depressed and very unhappy. That went on for months until one day he couldn’t stand it any longer.
Out of frustration he blurted, “Why aren’t you just happy and thankful you’re alive? You’re never going to be able to fix yourself, much less find all the lost pieces of the puzzle and put them back together! So why don’t you stop thinking about yourself, get up, and help someone else?”
I was offended at his frankness but knew he was right. It was something I needed to understand and accept in order to move on. I couldn’t go on in the way I had been. My young life was wasted thinking and complaining about everything that wasn’t going right!
So I started looking outward. In the beginning, it was hard. I was so used to my thoughts turning toward myself and my situation. It was quite a pull, but I kept trying.
I offered to take care of my friends’ children when they needed someone to pitch in. I started talking to people just for the fun of it and listening to them again. I offered to help with planning a local event in my community and volunteered to organize a fun event for the teens I knew.
What lightness I felt from helping and thinking about others! My burdens didn’t seem so heavy anymore. And as paradoxical as it seemed, through my reaching out to others I experienced deep joy and peace. I was happy again! Once I started helping someone else in need, happiness found me.
Within a few months, the anxiety had stopped and the burn-out subsided. Oh, the miraculous power of looking outward!
While science is proving what many of us know deep inside, I personally believe we are all wired to care, to share, and to give to others. And not only is it good for them, but it’s good for us.
What are you going to do today to help someone else, and ultimately improve your health?