Health Column: Experience ‘the helper’s high’ during the holidays

Christmas presents stolen in Wading River

You know that warm fuzzy feeling you get after finding someone the perfect gift, helping an older person cross the street or, say, rescuing a wide-eyed kitten from a tight spot?

It’s more than a warming of the heart — it’s your brain’s way of rewarding you for doing something good, said Stephen Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. 

With the holiday season in full swing, mental health experts agree that giving to others can be just as beneficial for the giver as for the receiver.

Popularly known as “the helper’s high,” or what Dr. Post likes to call “the giver’s glow,” do-gooders experience “a pleasurable and euphoric emotional sensation of energy and warmth” caused by a release of dopamine and endorphins, he said.

These are chemicals present in brain regions that control emotion, motivation and feelings of pleasure, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“If you could sell it as a compound in a drug store, you would be a millionaire overnight,” he said of the emotional response.

While donating money and giving gifts invoke feelings of happiness, Dr. Post said individuals can actually benefit most from physically dedicating their time to helping others.

“The financial things are fine, but the real bonus comes in the face-to-face helping at low thresholds,” he said. “It gets the mind off the everyday anxieties of the self, instead allowing people to think and engage in some other form of meaningful activity.”

A good way to do this is by volunteering for one of the many organizations that give back during the holiday season, he said.

In a 2010 survey of about 4,500 people conducted by United Healthcare, a national insurance provider, about 68 percent agreed that volunteering made them “feel physically healthier,” and 92 percent said it “enriches sense of purpose in life.”

Dr. Post said volunteering can be especially beneficial for older adults — including those who are set to retire — as it brings added meaning to their newly discovered downtime.

“When older adults become involved in a deeply meaningful activity, they do much better mentally and also physically,” he said, adding that some physicians in geriatric medicine actually prescribe or recommend volunteering to help older adults fulfill that sense of purpose.

About 78 percent of those participating in the United Healthcare survey, which was open to anyone 18 or older, said volunteering also helps with recovery “from loss and disappointment.” And about 40 percent of those who took part volunteered an average of 100 hours a year.

Dr. Post said that while this is meant to be a season of joy and giving, people often become overwhelmed by the pressures that accompany holiday preparations.

“The reason people get stressed out is because it is so heavily commercialized — and it doesn’t need to be that way,” he said. “Think less about the material side of it and come together in your families and cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Another pair of $200 designer jeans isn’t going to make you happy. It might give you a slight uplift for a day or so, but happiness comes from real community and real connections, which are made through meaningful activities.”

So think about it: What can you do this holiday season to help yourself — and others?

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