Giving and Receiving Improve Health and Wellbeing
By Larry Berkelhammer, PhD
The helpless victim mentality
In all my years of working with people who were living with chronic, debilitating medical conditions, the single most significant problem I observed was the longer someone had been in the system and being cared for by various healthcare providers, the more likely they were to have adopted a passive, helpless, victim mentality. Even the term patient implies passivity. My goal has always been to empower those that are seeking help to become proactive in their self-care and in their lives in general.
For those of us who need to spend considerably more time than the average person going to medical appointments and engaging in self-care, it is easy to become somewhat self-absorbed. One of the things I learned was that the more self-absorbed we are, the worse our health outcomes, and that the more engaged we are with others, the better our health outcomes. The opposite of self-absorption, which is curiosity and open-heartedness toward others, correlates with better health outcomes.
How can I help?
The most common question asked of me in my talks and in the Q&A column on my website is some version of: How can I get my family member or friend to become proactive and to practice better self-care?
My answer starts with identifying personal life values and goals and then acting in harmony with those values and goals.
However, I have found the very best solution to be: Find an opportunity for your loved one to help others. The act of serving others is very empowering and contributes to a sense of mastery and wellbeing. It may sound strange, but for some people it can be hard to become proactive in managing their own health until they begin to help others. This is most likely the result of greater valuing of oneself when helping others. In other words, when people have low self-esteem they may not be proactive because they don’t think they are worthy of that kind of attention and care. Simple daily acts to help others can make enough of a difference to their self-esteem to catalyze a proactive approach to self-managing their lives.
Two essential practices to improve health and wellbeing
In my thorough literature reviews and years of working with people living with chronic health challenges I left no stone unturned in order to uncover the variables that contribute to improved health, beyond the usual suspects such as diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management. I discovered two things that consistently correlated with better health and wellbeing. After controlling for confounding variables, research clearly pointed to the importance of the following two variables:
- Social support
- Meaning and purpose.
Social support can take many forms, such as family, friends, support groups, group therapy, co-workers, volunteer projects, and relationships involving a shared professional or recreational interest.
Meaning and purpose can come from performing any activity that provides us with a sense of accomplishment. It can be found by working toward personal goals or living in harmony with personal values. It can even be found by redefining undesirable external circumstances that we are powerless to change.
Serving others in some capacity seems to help us to meet our needs for social support as well as meaning and purpose. Considerable research has found strong associations between altruism and health. Altruistic acts help us to feel better about ourselves and about life in general. Those acts tend to give our lives meaning and purpose. When we do volunteer work within our communities, social support is one of our rewards.
Being part of something larger than ourselves
The meaning and purpose and social support that we receive from performing altruistic acts in turn contribute to decreased suffering from chronic symptoms such as pain, fatigue, and malaise. One reason is that helping others takes our minds off our own complaints. Another reason is that helping others leads to feeling better about ourselves, which then serves to reduce emotional distress and its concomitant physiological stress. Still another reason is due to the resulting improved self-care, which results from the improved self-esteem.Hits : 586