I once heard someone say, “The best feeling of happiness is when you’re happy, because you’ve made someone else happy.” I don’t disagree.
As a former magazine editor, I was privileged to travel to some interesting places listening to and researching stories. One particular trip to Eden Gardens State Park in Point Washington stands out in my mind. While touring the beautiful Wesley Mansion, the guide told a personal story that has stuck with me to this day. She said the way that the lady of the house would help those who needed money, was to say she needed a particular plant or flower or shrub. They would then show up with it, plant it on the grounds and she would pay them heftily. I hope I’m remembering the story correctly, but the point is, she gave those people a gift: a sense of worth as well as the monetary contribution. She could have just handed out money, but could it be that her satisfaction came from knowing she had contributed to someone’s sense of self-worth and value by offering them a “job?” As most know, today the gardens are spectacular, full of greenery and blooms and many visit them each year. Little did she know her small acts of kindness would turn into what we see there now. She was simply serving someone else.
This story has stuck with me all these years. And I have been thinking, what drives someone to help and serve others? I know I feel euphoric when I’ve contributed to someone else’s happiness, provided a service, solved a problem or made a difference in their life. And I wondered, since we all seem to feel that sense of satisfaction or happiness when we’ve served, does spending some of our time this way also contribute to our good health?
What I found out: Most of us know about the natural endorphins that are released when we exercise our bodies physically. They interact with the receptors in our brains that reduce our perception of pain as well as trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to the effects of morphine. However, what you may not know is that natural endorphins are also released into our systems when we do things that impact others positively. That means I am taking care of myself when I pursue activities that contribute to feeling good and are useful to others. Providing help to friends, acquaintances, and even strangers can mitigate the impact of daily stressors on emotions and mental health, according to research published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Dr. Larry Berkelhammer, a retired mind-body medicine psychologist, certainly believes this. In fact, he’s written an entire book about it entitled “In Your Own Hands: New Hope for People with Chronic Medical Conditions.” Berkelhammer says service to others has been strongly associated with higher levels of wellbeing and health. “The act of serving others is very empowering and contributes to a sense of mastery and wellbeing,” he says. “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.”
Berkelhammer also says there are two essential practices to improve health and wellbeing beyond the usual components we ordinarily assume such as diet, exercise, sleep and stress management (which I have written about in past columns). Those are “social support” and “meaning and purpose.”
Friend time, family gatherings, bantering with co-workers, serving on boards in my community and my profession, volunteering for non-profits at events and even participating and serving as a member of the local alumni association always lift me up. Apparently, all these activities, relationship-building and meaningful friendships offer social support, which in turn contributes to life longevity and a sense of purpose. When we do work in our community, for example, the byproduct is social support for us. My assumption is that the lady of Wesley Mansion (mentioned earlier) felt these same feelings. Thus, part of the reason she “employed” people to plant the trees, shrubs and flowers in her yard was because it made her feel great.
Berkelhammer also says being part of something larger than ourselves “contributes to decreased suffering from chronic symptoms such as pain, fatigue and malaise and takes our minds off our own complaints. Helping others leads to feeling better about ourselves, which then serves to reduce emotional distress and its concomitant physiological stress. Improved self-esteem leads to improved self-care.”
I am reminded of Seaside founders Robert and Daryl Davis and their generosity over the years in designing, developing and building Seaside, in many ways through their philanthropy. I continually witness their glow and vibrancy of life, which is apparent to anyone who knows them and works with them. With their time and efforts, they have helped build the foundations of The Seaside Institute, the Seaside Neighborhood School, the Seaside Repertory Theatre (The REP), the Escape to Create program, and supported numerous others external organizations through their service and participation.
Likewise, I believe that many Seaside merchants and businesses have energy and staying power, are a joy to work with, and are full of life, partly because they are also doing great things in our
community and abroad. For example, Amavida Coffee & Tea is impacting villages worldwide through its small worker-owned farming cooperatives in Latin America, Caribbean, Africa, and Asia — relationships which have been forged to help improve the lives in these communities based on fair trading practices, human rights, and environmental sustainability. The owners of Frost Bites, Mike and Chance Gullett, donate time and products to charities such as Lighthouse Family Retreat, an organization serving children with cancer, as well as Alaqua Animal Refuge, Camel Club, and Wounded Warriors. Dave Rauschkolb, Bud & Alley’s Waterfront Restaurant owner, established Hands Across the Sand, an organization that brings together individuals and organizations to promote a clean energy future across the world and end our dependence on dirty fuels. Bud & Alley’s also hosts non-profit fund-raising events on a regular basis such as Children’s Volunteer Health Network, which provides dental care to children in Okaloosa and Walton counties. Erica Pierce, vice president of Seaside Associated Stores (SAS), is continually finding ways to partner with local charities through events such as the Halloweener Derby and through product offerings that help raise money for them. SAS staff as well as Bud & Alley’s Pizza Bar, Seaside Farmers Market, Mercantile and Duckies, Sundog Books and others support Food for Thought, a local non-profit with outreach to students in Okaloosa and Walton counties (see sidebar). Bill and Heavenly Dawson continuously support Seaside’s Escape to Create program by opening their hearts and home.
And there are numerous others in our community making amazing and valuable contributions.
I now understand why I am driven to some of these selfless activities, why others are, and why we all need them for lifelong health and happiness. My advice is to make it a habit to serve others. Open a door for someone. Smile at others, even strangers. Offer something that lends value or purpose. Rescue a pet. Become a volunteer. Laugh with your friends, family and coworkers. Work with teenagers. Send flowers to someone. Write a positive note to someone. Call someone in your family or a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. Visit someone in the hospital or retirement home. Help someone make their dreams come true. You will make their day or even their life better. In turn, possibly without realizing it, you will optimize your own health, mentally and physically, and your heart will grow three sizes in one day. Remember the Grinch?