December 16, 2016

By Luna Greenstein


Right before my grandmother died, a cascade of negative events happened to me all at once. Verbal abuse, sexual harassment, health problems—I had a lot to handle. I also had a bad habit of letting my thoughts go wherever they wanted. It was especially a problem during my walk to work every morning. I would put my ear buds in and drown out my surroundings. With no distractions, I would ruminate about everything going wrong in my life.

These thoughts would always start with check-ins or inventories I would perform with myself as I walked.  If I didn’t feel “like myself,” or if I felt sad or anxious (or both), then I would ask myself: “What is making me feel this way?” In my effort to answer that question, the ruminations would start:

Why couldn’t I sleep last night? Am I going to be tired all day? Will coffee be enough to wake me up? Will I be able to focus on my work? Will I feel less sad when I get to work? Will work make me feel worse? Do I have to go?

It was a 30-minute walk filled with nothing but music and negative thoughts.

The Benefits of Helping Others

After my grandmother’s funeral, I decided to call my mom during my walk to work. I wanted to make sure she was okay and provide her with a listening ear. Regardless of what I had going on (on top of losing my grandmother), I knew my mom needed my support. She seemed audibly brightened by the fact that I called her, and she thanked me at the end of our conversation. I wanted to continue helping her through this difficult time, so this phone call became our daily routine.

Every time we spoke, I didn’t worry about my own grief and anxiety—instead, I focused on my mom. My ruminations stopped before they even had the chance to begin; they were replaced by my efforts to make my mom feel better, smile and laugh during her period of grief. And I didn’t realize it until much later, but those calls were exactly what I needed as well. Through that daily process, I was healing.

A 2016 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine found that giving had greater benefits than receiving. Participants in the study who gave help showed reduced stress and increased feelings of reward in their brain imaging. This research points to the conclusion that when you help others, you’re also helping yourself.

Some of us might not need a study to prove that. I know for me, my mom taught me the importance of helping others long ago. She used to say the easiest way to be happy is to do at least one mitzvah (Hebrew for “act of kindness”) every day. But through helping my mom, so many years later, I was able to realize the validity of her words. My daily calls, my “acts of kindness,” helped me move past the internal struggles I was waging.

A Symbiotic Society

Helping other people can improve your self-esteem and make you feel better about yourself, since you are taking time and energy to have a positive impact on someone else. And receiving help from someone can be a positive motivator to then turn around and help someone else. The impact of one person helping another person, therefore, could benefit a whole chain of individuals. Just imagine how the world would be if people started using helping others as a primary coping mechanism for their own struggles. We could potentially live in a symbiotic culture of reciprocated support—a culture that brings people together and builds stronger relationships.

I know my mom and I became even closer than we were when I helped her:

“I was on the edge of a cliff, and you were my life line” my mom said to me about a month-and-a-half after my grandmother died. “You were the only person I could really talk to. You were my emotional support daughter. I don’t know where I would be if not for you.”

“I’m glad I was able to help you, Mom. But if I’m being honest, being there for you helped me too.”

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