How helping others can help you, too

by Carolyn Thomas   ♥   @HeartSisters

Fun Fact:  we know that people who volunteer in their community feel generally more hopeful and experience fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety compared to non-volunteers. This cheery conclusion may make you wonder, as Washington Post reporters did:

“But does volunteering make people happy, or are happy people simply more likely to volunteer?”    

This is an important question for heart patients, or anybody living with a chronic and progressive illness. Personally, I grew up in a family of volunteers, and was an active community volunteer myself as an adult, and also managed large teams of volunteers for a non-profit organization. But since my heart attack and subsequent diagnosis of coronary microvascular disorder, I’ve essentially stopped all volunteering jobs.

Or rather, I should say I’ve stopped signing up as a volunteer.

If I consider the countless unpaid hours I’ve spent doing my “Heart-Smart Women” presentations, writing articles about women’s heart health, and responding to thousands of reader comments here on Heart Sisters, I’m likely one of the busiest volunteers I know! But due to ongoing cardiac symptoms of refractory angina, I no longer have the energy to do the kind of public volunteering I did for decades (i.e. any volunteer role that requires too much thinking. Or running. Or changing out of my jammies. . .) Lucky for me, volunteering can take many forms.

My theory on volunteering is that most longtime volunteers keep volunteering because they feel like, on balance, they’re getting more out of the experience than they put in.  (If that balance shifts, you’ll see volunteers quit).

Researchers tell us that when longterm volunteers do stay (as I did for one of my favourite volunteer stints – running the concession at our historic Belfry Theatre, where my nametag proudly announced: “Volunteer Since 1986!”), they become happier over time. And you don’t need to already feel happy to benefit from doing good for others. In fact, some research suggests that people who start out with lower levels of wellbeing may even get a bigger boost from doing good than those with higher levels of wellbeing.  The same research concluded:

“Compared to people who didn’t volunteer, people who had volunteered in the past year were more satisfied with their lives and rated their overall health as better. Additionally, the researchers found that people who volunteered more frequently experienced greater benefits: Those who volunteered at least once a month reported better mental health than participants who volunteered infrequently or not at all.”

Doing good for others is good for us!  But doing good is not limited to signing up for weekly volunteer shifts.

An interesting mental health study at Ohio State University gave research participants a choice of three available ways to participate:

  • group therapy
  • mindfulness exercise
  • helping others

The study found that performing acts of kindness for others led to improvements that were not seen in the two other therapeutic techniques.

Most importantly, the kindness option was the only intervention tested that helped people feel more connected to others, said study co-author Dr. David Cregg, who led the research team:

“Social connection is one of the ingredients of life most strongly associated with wellbeing. Performing acts of kindness seems to be one of the best ways to promote those connections.”

The research also revealed why performing acts of kindness for others worked so well:  it helped people take their minds off their own symptoms – especially for those feeling depressed or anxious.

This finding also suggests that one intuition many people have about depression may actually be wrong:

“We often think that people with depression have enough to deal with, so we don’t want to burden them by asking them to help others. But these results run counter to that,”  said Dr. Cregg. “Doing nice things for people and focusing on the needs of others may actually help people with depression and anxiety feel better about themselves.”

Action For Happiness (AFH) is a UK-based non-profit movement that’s also keen to help us take action to create a happier and kinder world, together. (Their patron is the Dalai Lama, just to give you an idea of the supporters they have attracted). Their Ten Keys To Kindness are based on latest research, reinforcing in a clear and user-friendly fashion much of what Dr. Cregg’s team has also reported from their research.

The first AFH key, for example, is simply called GIVING, summed up like this:  If you want to feel good, do good.”

“What goes around comes around – and with kindness it really does. Research shows that being kind to others increases our own levels of happiness as well as theirs. What’s more it has a knock-on effect – kindness is contagious, so it makes our communities nicer places to be.  And when we do kind things for others, it literally activates the brain’s ‘reward centre’ and that feels good. It can take our minds off our own worries, too.

“Our acts of kindness might be for strangers, family, friends, colleagues or neighbours. They could be old or young, nearby or far away. It could be a one-off spontaneous gesture or something we do regularly. It could be a compassionate response in a time of crisis or need, or simply because it’s a nice thing to do.”

AHF cites studies showing that when we do something kind, both the recipient and other people who witness that kind act are more likely to be kind themselves – so our kindnesses are amplified.

A word here about balance, however.

Helping is generally associated with increased happiness and improved health, as AHF explains, but feeling obligated or overly burdened by it can be detrimental, as can be the case for long-term carers. If you are a carer, taking care of your own wellbeing matters – for yourself and for the people you’re helping. Even small actions that give you a quick break or a boost can help you sustain your health and care for others.

Sometimes, we can choose to step away from a helping role (as I was able to do) but sometimes that’s just not possible (if you’re a family caregiver, for example). It’s important to seek help, big or small, when you need it.  For more on setting good personal boundaries and saying NO, read: Scope Creep: When NO Means Maybe, and Maybe Means YES.

And even better, it’s important to say YES to help that is offered to you. When your friends or neighbours ask “What can I do to help out?”, have a list on hand of practical errands or tasks that you could really use some help with.

Many of us may feel reluctant to be a bother, or to put other people out when they offer us help. But remember what all that research says? We’re actually helping other people feel better by allowing them to be kind to us!  And people wouldn’t offer to help if they didn’t really wish they could do something.

So say “Yes please!” and make them – and yourself – happier!

Finally, here’s an example of one of many free resources from Action for Happiness: a printable monthly calendar of small daily tips to stay connected through kindness. Almost all of these seem absolutely do-able – yes, even on a bad day when your symptoms may feel like you can’t do much at all.

Images: Action for Happiness

Q:  How has doing acts of kindness for others helped you?


NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote more about the importance of maintaining social connections after a cardiac diagnosis in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” . You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use the JHUPress code HTWN to save 30% off the cover price).

See also:

Unlikely companions: grief and gratitude

The importance of planning for everyday joy

-Social isolation/loneliness is hurting your heart

Three types of heart happiness defined

17 thoughts on “How helping others can help you, too

  1. Hi Carolyn,

    I finally found two minutes to respond to this very timely post. I too am much healthier emotionally and mentally when I’m helping others. I’m a retired Math teacher who did a lot of volunteer work at my school, including coaching. I was able to connect with students on a different level, which paid dividends in the classroom. Students sometimes “cried on my shoulder”.

    Since retiring, I knew I needed to continue to help students. So, I started tutoring as a part time job, which paid for a cleaning lady so I’d have time for other things. I ran a literacy-numeracy tutoring program at a local drop in centre at my Church for marginalized people. I’m also a canvasser with Heart and Stroke. I loved my annual door-to-door visits with the people on my street who I don’t see on a regular basis. Amongst other things, I sang in my Church Choir and once a week, I babysat one of my grandchildren while his/her parents worked.

    With the arrival of COVID, everything came to a crashing halt as we all cocooned in our “bubbles”. I was able to flip to online tutoring; but, the tutoring program, which had almost run its course, ended as did everything else.

    Health issues have left both my husband and I vulnerable; so, the only indoor activity I’ve returned to is singing in my Church choir, masked and sitting behind and distanced from unmasked choristers.

    My husband has been very ill since August; so, I’ve been his caregiver. It’s been exhausting, mentally, physically and emotionally and very frustrating. I’ve learned our health care system is very broken, where 8 hour trips to the ER are the norm, not all medical facilities use the same programs and can’t read each other’s tests, errors in communication are common and medical practitioners are quick to pass the buck and label your symptoms as psychosomatic!

    I’ve learned to reach out to the medical professionals in my family and to the counsellors at my Church.

    During this difficult time, I initially thought that I’ve got nothing left to “give”. But, I’ve learned how to give remotely. Thank goodness for email, ZOOM and the trusty old phone. Updating family through regular emails has been much less emotionally draining than having to repeat the story through phone calls. I’ve stayed in touch with friends, put more energy into my online Heart & Stroke Campaign, marked Waterloo Math Contests, and will continue to complete income taxes through the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program.

    Sometimes it takes me longer to get to and complete something and I often take several days to complete an email; but, now I’m OK with that. I’ve also learned to nap when I have a chance!!

    As a result, I’m in a much healthier place now and am better able to cope with my frustration and exhaustion.

    Thanks Carolyn for all you do to help all the rest of us live happier, healthier, more connected lives.

    Linda Vardy


    1. Hello Linda – thanks so much for sharing your important experience. I sometimes wonder if there’s a “helping” gene in some people (in which looking around to see how you can help others who need help is just automatic).

      And now you’ve somehow managed to transition your volunteer/helping from in-person to virtual or tech. Are you familiar by the way with Caring Bridge? It’s a helpful site where you can regularly update friends and family on a sick person’s medical changes, plus many other wonderful features.

      I’m sorry you’ve become a family caregiver for your husband. That’s the hardest volunteer job of all – and it’s the army of unpaid family members everywhere that keeps our damaged healthcare system one step ahead of crashing entirely. Thank goodness you have medical folks in your family – and help from your church family.

      Naps are good!! Please take care, stay safe and healthy. . . ♥


  2. Pingback: H2H
  3. Again, I resonate and appreciate your writing. Last summer, I gave up my volunteer work helping prepare immigrants for the citizenship interview. I’d loved this work for over a decade, but one night when I walked out of the public library exhausted and feeling angina, I thought “That is my last citizenship student.” I turned in my materials and drove home weeping – but also knew it was time.

    I am learning to accept that small acts of kindness are not always so small. And they are what I can do now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Sara!

      Oh, that’s a sad feeling all right – knowing that something you really loved doing (for over a DECADE!?) is gone forever. It’s so hard to come to that realization, and yet it’s often what can help make your life so much more manageable once you finally do!

      You’re SO right – “Small acts of kindness are not always so small”. For your recipients, they can feel both big and important!

      Take care, and stay safe. . . ♥


    1. Oh, absolutely correct, Pauline. I’m no longer able to keep doing any of my former volunteer roles at all now – but as I wrote here: “Lucky for me, volunteering can take many forms!”

      It’s not the ‘weekly volunteer shifts’ we’re talking about anymore (although some people may feel up to doing those) but more about learning what help or acts of kindness we are able and willing to offer others.

      Take care, stay safe . . . ♥


  4. Yes, thank heaven for email and text. You are right… even on a “bad day”, (which I like to call “low energy days” so they don’t seem quite so bad LOL), I can lift a finger and communicate. I do find phone communication to be much more exhausting.

    I finally cleaned my bathroom floor yesterday after several months of consideration. I’m not sure of its kindness value except to myself. . . But in the end, we do have to be kind to ourselves so the tank can fill and overflow to others.’

    I applaud your car trunk cleaning!!! I’m not quite there or I’d offer to vacuum. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I just want to reinforce your section on balance. As someone who was always first in line to help others, it was just natural for me to put others first. However, at some point, I became unable to recognize that I needed help more than those I was helping. I became exhausted mentally, emotionally, spiritually and finally physically. I basically hit bottom. Literally unable to move.

    For me, service became a kind of obsession and I forgot how to keep the tank full so I could continue serving.

    We humans require a complex diet of spiritual, mental and physical energy. In the case of chronic illness, a self-evaluation of all three of these areas needs to done more frequently, in order to keep that balance you speak of.

    I’ve had days where the only thing I could do in the kindness department was sit in my chair and feel compassion – sending out Love saying: “May all the Beings in all of the worlds be Happy.”

    I think you mentioned Arthur Ashe’s quote in another post and it is my daily reminder that I do not have to be “Superwoman” anymore:
    “Start where you are, Use what you have, Do what you can.”

    Thank You for all your loving service!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Jill – you just gave us such a perfect example of how acts of kindness don’t have to be big exhausting jobs (like vacuuming my car trunk – although that kindness would be truly awesome if somebody offered it! I’ve managed to empty and sort out the trunk this past week – but couldn’t quite face dragging the vacuum out)!

      But I digress: Simply your closing “Thank you for all your loving service!” is a real kindness. You didn’t need to say that, yet it sure means a lot to me, especially coming from you. 🙂

      I felt inspired while writing this post to really focus more on doing that kind of messaging (yes, even while sitting in my chair on a bad day). I know what it means to have a “bad” day when all you really want to do is crawl back under the covers – but maybe I can send off an email or two before I hit the bed.

      This morning for example: sent off a message inquiring how a friend’s sick parent is doing (have been MEANING to do that for days but somehow just didn’t make time to do such a simple thing!) and another message with a birthday HELLO, just to let both people know that I’m thinking about them today. Another friend, after reading this morning’s post, asked me if I’d like to borrow a book she’s reading called “Why Good Things Happen to Good People” – because my post reminded her of that book, too. A call or email or text takes almost no time, yet can still let others know they’re in our thoughts.

      I love that Arthur Ashe quote so much (which is why you remember it from a number of my posts here!) Balancing that fine line between helping others and hurting ourselves isn’t so much a choice – safeguarding our health is THE priority. No SuperWoman qualifications required!

      Take care, stay safe. . . ♥


      1. Hi Jill – for some reason the following comment from you isn’t able to come up so I’ve copied and pasted your reply to my comment here:

        “Carolyn – Yes, thank heaven for email and text. You are right… even on a “bad day”, (which I like to call “low energy days” so they don’t seem quite so bad LOL), I can lift a finger and communicate. I do find phone communication to be much more exhausting.

        I finally cleaned my bathroom floor yesterday after several months of consideration. I’m not sure of its kindness value except to myself. . . But in the end, we do have to be kind to ourselves so the tank can fill and overflow to others.’

        I applaud your car trunk cleaning!!! I’m not quite there or I’d offer to vacuum. 😉” – Jill

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hi again Jill – Hmmmm, I think I should rethink how often I say “bad day”! I’ll try for ‘low-energy day’ instead, as you say. Words matter!

          I too find phone calls very tiring (except for my weekend phone chats with my sister who lives out of town! ) But I do appreciate the ability to send email or text messages quickly (short & sweet!) ♥


Your opinion matters. What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s