Research on volunteering has long found that those who help others have better physical health and psychological adjustment. And it’s not just that healthy individuals seek out ways to help others more; it is that in helping others that we reap the benefits of better well-being, too. Not only do we feel better but, for youth especially, there is a decrease in risk-taking behaviors, and more prosocial actions, especially with those outside of their family. But why is this the case?
One, it appears that volunteering and helping behaviors result in eudaimonic [yoo-dey-mon-ik] well-being, which should be distinguished from hedonic well-being. Hedonic well-being suggests that happiness and contentment comes from seeking out pleasurable activities (and avoiding pain), such as eating something sweet or winning a prize. In contrast, eudaimonic well-being is rooted in the belief that happiness comes from participating in activities that involve a deeper purpose or meaning. Hedonic activities can lead us to feel good, but only eudaimonic activities, such as volunteering, can lead us to feel good about ourselves. This is the essence of eudaimonic well-being. Actions focused on helping others or our world help us feel that we matter.
The concept of mattering was introduced in 1981 by Morris Rosenberg and Claire McCullough. They defined it as the perception that we are a significant part of the world around us—that people notice us, care that we exist, and value who we are. Multiple studies indicate that mattering plays a key role in why helping others leads to better well-being. When we feel valued and needed by other people, we feel better about ourselves.
Findings also indicate that those who are least socially integrated end up benefitting the most from helping others. It appears that those who are isolated, have few close relationships, and struggle to be part of a social network are the very ones whose lives can be changed dramatically by giving their time for charitable causes. This is especially important for victims of abuse and maltreatment as many are left feeling disconnected and estranged from those around them. In striving to regain a sense of interpersonal unity through layers of intense anxiety and insecurity, being a helper (in whatever capacity it may be) provides a universal opportunity for victims to bridge their vulnerability with that of others. As Holly discovered, this moment of connection can spawn a new light of hope, a resurrected glimpse into a humanness that may have been long lost.
The process of helping others also brings stark reminders of just how resilient we can be. In their own bitter pain, helpers can come to know others whose stories seem as bad, or even worse, than their own. And yet repeatedly, through tales of faith or persistence or survival, they are faced with victims that look less like victims, and more like warriors and transcenders. An introspective process can ensue, challenging whether the helper’s victim status is quite as impenetrable as was previously believed. Thoughts of resurgence seep in as an encounter with others in struggle challenges the helper to rewrite his or her tragic story into a revival. A new will emerges. A new love filters in.
She could hear a train rumbling through. Lying on her stomach, all she could think about was staying alive. Minutes earlier, she watched in horror as her boyfriend, Chris, was bludgeoned to death with a large rock. She talked and pleaded with her captor, in hopes that her life would be spared.
The night had started out like any other in the town of Lexington, Kentucky. Holly and Chris had left a party nearby to take walk on the tracks. Little did they know that Angel Resendiz, later to be known as the “Railroad Killer,” had been watching them as they strolled along. Suddenly, he appeared with a sharp weapon in hand. He tied and gagged them, forcing them to the side of the tracks. He seemed uninterested in money or other items they offered.
After being raped, the last thing she remembered was being hit repeatedly across the face with a wooden board. She lost consciousness, and woke up in someone’s front yard. She would become the only known survivor of Resendiz’s horrific killing spree.
After being treated at the hospital, she attempted to quickly return to her college life. Few knew what had happened since her name was not reported due to fears her assailant would try to locate her. By one year later, though, panic attacks increased and her grades were slipping. Anxiety gripped her at any moment.
Although anxiety remained, she gradually took steps in reclaiming her life. Along the way, she found that her deepest healing occurred in helping others traumatized by sexual abuse. Armed with her own traumatic experience and a no-nonsense demeanor, she instantly connected with children and parents in the throes of deep distress. She opened the nonprofit Holly’s House in her hometown of Evansville, Indiana, where victims of abuse could be interviewed in a safe, comfortable setting.
No one desires tragedies and despair. But what if in our sorrow, we are given a unique chance to reach others seemingly unreachable, even if that be ourselves? In our lifetime, we may not always have a choice about to whom we matter. Those of whom we desire may reject us. Those of whom we tire may accept us. But we can always matter to someone.
* * * * *
Rosenberg, M., and McCullough, B. C. (1981). Mattering: Inferred significance and mental health. Research in Community and Mental Health, 2, 163 – 182.
Piliavin, J.A., & Siegl, E. (2007). Health benefits of volunteering in the Wisconsin longitudinal study. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 48, 450-464.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.