It turns out that those who serve are a whole lot more likely to be physically healthy, too, down to the cellular level. Researchers at the University of North Carolina and UCLA recently discovered that people who scored high on the sort of happiness associated with meaning, defined as devotion to a cause bigger than oneself (eudaimonic well-being), had low levels of inflammatory gene expression and high levels of antiviral and antibody gene expression.
In contrast, people who characterized themselves as more concerned with the “instant gratification” brand of happiness (hedonic well-being) had high levels of inflammation and low antiviral and antibody gene expression, similar to depressed or stressed people.
Also, although the people high in hedonic well-being felt just as good emotionally as the people high in eudaimonic well-being during their involvement in the study (which lasted one month), it’s possible that the physical health of the “hedonic” individuals over the long term will decline when compared to their “altruistic” counterparts in the study, due to their jeopardized immune system. As tied as inflammation is to depression as well as to heart disease and cancer, the “hedonic” people may be more likely to eventually experience not only physical but emotional deterioration.
Consider, too, Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. A psychiatrist who was imprisoned in a concentration camp in World War II, Frankl endured the horror of his family members being murdered by the Nazis and himself being brutally mistreated. Frankl resolved that although his jailors might take almost everything from him, they would not take his peace of mind. Frankl chose to show kindness to his fellow prisoners, and sometimes even to his jailors, wherever possible, sharing his meager ration of bread, and demonstrating courtesy and tolerance. Although Frankl was undoubtedly grief-striven, it’s probable that his sense of purpose enabled him to survive physically, mentally, and emotionally, when so many did not.
Some more reasons to give service:
Social contact. Healthy relationships are an important component of a fulfilling existence. However, as society unfortunately becomes more fragmented, it’s not uncommon for people (even those living in a large city) to feel isolated. When we reach out to others and become part of an organization, we can find a “home”, along with learning new social skills and cooperation in the process.
We feel useful. If we get bogged down in depression, our thoughts can easily turn to “What’s the point?” and “I’m worthless”. If we turn our thoughts to someone else and choose a concrete way we can help them, we can move out of this downward spiral. Picking up groceries for a neighbor or volunteering at a food bank can quickly show us that we in fact have value.
We are distracted from our own problems. Being of service takes us out of painful self-centered ruminating. For example, if you love children, you can volunteer to be a teacher’s aide at a nearby elementary school. It’s quite likely that your attention will then be focused on your youthful charges rather than feeling overwhelmed by your personal issues.
Career exploration. Let’s say you enjoy cooking and are a good organizer. If you volunteer to help out with your church’s annual Christmas banquet, you might discover that you’d like to be a professional caterer. In addition, you can cite your volunteer experience when going on a job interview.
We move out of “victim” mode. One main premise of 12-Step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous is the “tool” of being of service and helping other members on the road of recovery. By doing so, many people find that not only are they enabled to stop their addictive patterns, but their lives take on new meaning and purpose. So, even out of tremendous heartache and shattered lives people can find a sense of meaning that, at least according to this latest research, translates to good physical health at its most basic level.
Everyday ways to be of service:
1. Give someone a genuine compliment.
2. Thank the checkout clerk at your grocery store.
3. Call a friend and ask them how they’re doing. Lend a listening ear.
4. Hold open the door for the next person.
5. Let someone into your lane while driving (without inflammatory gestures or words).
6. Encourage a friend or family member when they are uncertain or unmotivated.
7. Smile at people as you walk down the street.
8. Send someone a card and tell them the reasons you’re grateful for them.
9. Speak positively about the day, rather than complaining — spread some sunshine.
7. Make it your mission to be friendly to all people at all times.
Happiness and well-being can sneak up on you. Devoting yourself to a fulfilling cause or intention makes it more likely that contentment will enter through a back door.
Frankl, V. (1959). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Fredrickson, B.L., Grewen, K.M., Coffey, K.A., Algoe, S.B., Firestine, A.M., Arevalo, J.M.G., Ma, J., & Cole, S.W. (2013). A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(33): 13684-9.