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Hundreds of studies have been conducted on the effects of good deeds, volunteerism, and serving others. The results show that the recipients of good deeds obviously benefit: they feel more support, experience less stress, and enjoy greater health and well-being.
But what happens to the doers of good deeds? Numerous studies confirm that those who regularly engage in serving others enjoy better physical health, better mental health, and better relationships.
Good Deeds and Physical Health
People who do good deeds and serve others regularly have lower stress levels, more protective antibodies, stronger immune systems, fewer serious illnesses, less frequent pain, better overall physical health, and greater longevity. The findings from research are impressive. One interesting study shows that people who volunteer have a 44 percent reduction in early death, which is a greater impact than exercising four times a week.
Doing good deeds helps reduce the stress in our lives. When we experience stressful events, our bodies release various stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases our heart rate and blood pressure; cortisol increases sugars in our bloodstream and suppresses our immune system. Ongoing exposure to these hormones can lead to headaches, digestive problems, weight gain, memory impairment, and heart disease. Apparently, serving others shuts down this process and produces substantial physical benefits.
Another group of studies shows that whether we are stressed out or not, serving others stimulates the prefrontal lobe of the brain and releases positive hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. Oxytocin is a “feel-good” chemical that helps us bond with other people; dopamine creates feelings of pleasure and is used as a medicine to treat heart disease; serotonin is an effective mood stabilizer; and endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. We can all enjoy these attractive outcomes when we serve others.
Good Deeds and Mental Health
People who volunteer and serve others also experience less anxiety and depression, greater emotional stability, higher self-esteem, better work-life balance, more confidence, and greater life satisfaction. As with various physical ailments, the reduction in stress that results from doing good deeds helps produce these positive mental and emotional outcomes.
Apparently, thinking more about other people than ourselves and acting on those impressions stops the mental rumination we all experience over our own challenges in life, which reduces stress and promotes happier emotions. Here is how Dr. Stephen Post, a renowned scholar on the science of good deeds, summarizes the impact of doing good on our overall emotional health.
All the great spiritual traditions and the Field of positive psychology are emphatic on this point—that the best way to get rid of bitterness, anger, rage, jealousy is to do unto others in a positive way. It’s as though you somehow have to cast out negative emotions that are clearly associated with stress—cast them out with the help of positive emotions.
Good Deeds and Relationships
In addition to better physical and emotional health, serving other people can significantly improve our relationships. Research shows that people who regularly volunteer and perform good deeds develop new friendships, are more accepting of others, feel a greater sense of belonging, enjoy more satisfying relationships, and have a stronger support network in times of need.
Studies also show that people who regularly volunteer can develop better communication and leadership skills. Consequently, they are more employable and have greater success in their careers.
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Connecting with Selflessness
In sum, doing good deeds daily works as a vaccine that reduces stress, improves our physical and mental health, strengthens our relationships, and increases our joy and happiness. However, the strength of these outcomes is influenced by two additional factors.
First, several studies show that doing good deeds must actually connect us to other people. Simply donating money to an organization or favorite charity without any human interaction does not produce the same benefits.
Second, doing good deeds for personal gain or public recognition reduces the positive effects of serving others. In other words, our motivation for helping people makes a difference in the outcomes we experience. If we feel pressured to help or we serve grudgingly, we will not receive the same good results. We should engage in good deeds because we really care about other people and want to make our community better—not because we want specific benefits for ourselves.
1. Just Do It
Every day presents numerous opportunities for doing good deeds if we watch for them. We can help our family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues at work. These can be simple and unplanned acts of kindness like making breakfast, going to the store, buying lunch, giving a compliment, writing a letter, making a phone call, helping with a problem, cleaning up a workspace, mowing a lawn, shoveling snow, and on and on.
We can also do good deeds for people we don’t know throughout our day: things like smiling, holding a door, giving directions, carrying a package, buying a meal, paying a bill, sharing an umbrella, and so forth. Based on the research we reviewed above, this will release the “feel-good” chemicals in our bodies and minds and improve our happiness and relationships. And the more we do good deeds, the more they will become a natural part of our character.
So let me challenge all of us to an experiment. Let’s start each day asking ourselves, “Who can I help today?” The answer may come in prayer, meditation, or in quiet reflection each morning. I am a strong believer that impressions come to us more clearly when we want to help other people than when we want to benefit ourselves—it has something to do with the flow of intelligence in the universe.
Next, let’s commit to doing at least one good deed for someone each day for a month and see what happens. Let’s keep a journal of what we do and how we feel about each experience. I am confident we will want to continue doing good deeds after a month. If we don’t, we will miss out on the joy of thinking about others more than ourselves.
2. Meet Specific Needs
In addition to doing random good deeds each day, specific people, groups, and organizations always need help. Committing to a more structured plan of giving keeps us doing good deeds on a regular basis.
Do you know a person who needs continual help and support? Perhaps a child that needs mentoring, a neighbor with a long-term illness, a family that has lost a loved one, an aging parent, or a friend going through a divorce. Scheduling ongoing time to help someone blesses his or her life as well as our own. This is what Richard Paul Evans did when he committed to do something for his wife each day to make her life better—which saved their marriage.
Along with helping specific people, every city has organizations that need regular volunteers: the American Red Cross, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity, Volunteers of America, the local food bank, and so on. I suggest you find an organization that is working on a problem you are excited to help solve like literacy, hunger, poverty, homelessness, and so forth.
When we do things we are passionate about, it strengthens our motivation and commitment to serve. You can find a number of opportunities in every city across the country on websites that link volunteers with service opportunities.
I suggest you try volunteering for a few months and see what happens. As the research suggests, people who volunteer develop new friends, feel a sense of belonging, enjoy better relationships, have a stronger support network, gain valuable skills, and do well in their careers.
3. Be an Advocate for Ren
Doing any of the above is more than adequate to increase our happiness and make a difference in our community.
The Chinese philosopher Confucius introduced a wonderful concept he called ren, which is much broader than just doing good deeds. Ren means compassion, human goodness, warmheartedness, benevolence, and a strong sense of connection to all humanity.
Confucius taught that ren is the loftiest virtue from which all other virtues follow. He believed that ren is critical to achieving true happiness, reaching our full potential as humans, and living civilly together on earth. According to Confucius, ren should be the ultimate guide to human conduct for all nations and races.
At some point, we may find ourselves in a role that provides an opportunity to promote ren more broadly. For example, many of the new age entrepreneurs I have worked with during my career have added a social initiative to their business. In addition to creating great products and services, they want to give back to the community in which they operate.
One company allows its team members to do service projects in the community during their off season and still get paid. Another young entrepreneur uses a percentage of his profits to build schools and promote literacy. Others volunteer to teach in schools, mentor students, and support programs for at-risk youth.
When we are in any kind of leadership role—teacher, coach, manager, neighborhood leader, or parent—we can organize projects that promote ren. This will help solve recurring problems, strengthen our communities, and expose even more people to the joy of doing good deeds. Personally, I think volunteering and serving others should be promoted by all types of organizations as a healthy lifestyle. The more of us involved in doing good, the more the chain reaction expands, and the more perpetual good deeds become a natural part of our culture. This is definitely an outcome worth pursuing.
Pay It Forward
In sum, in the bestselling novel Pay It Forward, a young boy creates an ingenious plan for changing the world. He commits to help three people, who in turn will help three people, who will also help three people, and so on. The math shows that eventually the entire world will be impacted by good deeds, much like a virus can infect the world.
Although this is a great story, some evidence supports the underlying assumption that “emotional contagion” is possible. Proponents of this theory cite the “laughing epidemic” in Tanzania in 1962. It started with several girls laughing uncontrollably at a boarding school and quickly spread to 95 of the 159 students. It continued spreading for months, eventually infecting nearly 1,000 people at fourteen different schools, which all had to close for a brief period to control the strange epidemic. Although several researchers surmise this was a reaction to stress the children were feeling, the laughter still spread from person to person to person.
Likewise, if we help other people, they are more inclined to help other people, who are also more inclined to help other people, and the results grow exponentially. Apparently, kindness is contagious.
According to the law of karma, the goodness we spread will eventually flow back into our own lives, even though this was not our original intent for doing good. Research strongly supports this outcome: helping others can significantly improve our health, emotions, relationships, and overall happiness. “When person A helps person B, person A gets better.”
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Printed with permission.
BOOK: One People One Planet
One People One Planet: 6 Universal Truths for Being Happy Together
by Michael Glauser
Life on Earth can be a beautiful experience, but it also comes with heartache, loneliness, and discouragement. Recurring problems cycle through every generation: discrimination, civil unrest, political hatred, and conflicts among nations.
One People One Planet lays out a clear path to help us all increase our happiness and live peacefully on this planet. The six universal truths presented-gleaned from the founders of the great world religions, world-renowned philosophers, and cutting-edge research in the field of positive psychology-can help us.
For more info and/or to order this book, click here. Also available as an Audiobook and a Kindle edition.
About the Author
Michael Glauser is an entrepreneur, business consultant, and university professor. He has built successful companies in the retail, wholesale, and educational industries and has worked with hundreds of businesses-from startups to multinational enterprises-in leadership development, communication, team building, and organizational strategy.
Today, Mike serves as Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. He's also the Director of the SEED self-sufficiency program, helping people around the world to improve their standard of living and benefit their communities through entrepreneurship.
Learn more at OnePeopleOnePlanet.com.