Research has revealed that when we show concern for others—empathizing with a friend who has lost a loved one, mowing the lawn for an elderly neighbor, or volunteering to mentor a school-aged child—we improve our own health and well-being and embrace and give voice to our deeper identity and dignity as human beings.
In The Hidden Gifts of Helping: How the Power of Giving, Compassion, and Hope Can Get us Through Hard Times, Stephen G. Post helps us discover how we can make “helping” a lifetime activity. The Hidden Gifts of Helping explores the very personal story of Post and his family’s difficult move and their experience with the healing power of helping others, as well as his passion about how this simple activity—expressed in an infinite number of small or large ways—can help you survive and thrive despite the expected and unexpected challenges life presents.
Post’s story is intertwined with supporting scientific research and spiritual understanding. This book demonstrates that by looking outside of ourselves we gain better well-being and strengthen our faith. This book can become your companion and guide to the power of giving, forgiving, and compassion in hard times.
Interview with Stephen G. Post
Author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping
Q: The Bible clearly calls believers to help others. What first drew your attention to this topic?
Since my youth I have appreciated the passage from St. Paul (2 Corinthians 9:7), “So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.” My Irish mother used to tell me as a very young boy when I would feel a little out of sorts, “Stevie, why don’t you go out and help someone?” And I would go across the street or down the block and do something for someone. This always made me feel better. The passage from St. Paul was brought to my attention by my Irish grandmother, Nora Magee. This meant to me that we should help others from the heart, doing things that we feel called to and using our God-given talents so that we can really feel good about making a difference. Help others willingly out of love. I also associated a quiet inner joyfulness and hope with Christian love, and these are deeper things than mere happiness or optimism.
I wrote my senior high school thesis paper on Christian love as a source of joy. I stuck with that theme through my PhD dissertation. Over the years I have had the opportunity to be friends with many wonderful examples of joyful Christian love. But of course, in the end, there is only one ultimate role model, and that is Jesus Christ, whose love was so palpable and awesome that people were attracted to him because they felt that they were in the presence of a love that went far beyond the merely human.
Q: You write in The Hidden Gifts of Helping that helping is to be a lifetime activity. Why do we think that as we get older we are not required to “help others” as much as perhaps when we were younger?
Actually, older people are doing much better when they spend time helping others. The older folks who are just rising up for martinis in Sun City at noon are not living as long as the ones who report certain moderate levels of volunteering (a few hours a weeks, for example) and being engaged in contributing actively to the lives of others. Mortality studies from three major universities point out that giving adds a year or two to the life of an average older person. By the way, if you factor out the Christian saints who were martyred and therefore died young, all known records highlight that they were generally living longer lives than the general population.
Getting old is a hard thing, and people see friends dying off here and there. It is not easy. The best way to handle growing old is to get the mind off the self and its problems and just help others with a smile. Of course, we know that when pre-teens (12-year-olds) get started with helping behaviors in youth, they tend to be protected from heart disease and depression over the course of their lifetimes, and thus on average live a little longer too. So, it’s good to be good no matter how old you are, and it beats the destructive emotions of hostility, hatred, fear, and rage. Just reaching out to help people tends to change our emotional state from negative to more positive. The Bible says that “perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18). Love pushes aside a lot of hurtful feeling states. Ultimately, it is experiencing God’s love that gives us that real deep inner peace and freedom.
Q: Beyond the admonition of Christ’s example to love others and bear one another’s burdens, you have research that indicates that helping others truly benefits both the giver and the receiver. What are some examples of this?
This is easy. First, alcoholics in AA who help other alcoholics have twice the recovery rate of those who don’t. After one year since going dry, 40% of the helpers are still sober, while only 22% of the others are. So helping others doubles the recovery rate in a one year window. The helpers are also less depressed after a year.
We have a dozen good studies showing that people with mild or moderate depression who can bring themselves to help others, usually through organized volunteer work, experience considerable relief.
I work in medical education. There are now a number of excellent studies showing that doctors and nurses who practice with compassionate care feel more gratification as professionals and have lower burnout rates, lower depression rates, and lower suicide rates. Of course, this is also a great thing for their patients, who are able to better comply with treatments, have shorter hospital stays, and are more likely to be satisfied. No one likes to be treated like a biological slab, the kidney in room 5. People want to be cared for. And this has to come from the doctor, who has a unique role and authority.
Widows or widowers typically go through considerable bereavement and grief. We know that the ones who can report some moderate levels of helping others in their lives get through this period quicker and easier.
Communities in which “love of neighbor” is high have higher happiness levels and less heart disease. Community really makes a difference.
Q: Tell us more about your research. How do you go about proving that helping is healthy?
The second chapter is entitled “The Giver’s Glow.” It is all about scientific studies showing that people are happier and healthier when they treat others with love. Love means something like this: when the security and well-being of another means as much to me as my own, I love that person. Study after study shows that when people cultivate loving actions, it tends to get them into a spiritual-emotional zone where they are free from anxiety and negative emotions. They experience mood elevation, tranquility, warmth, and great meaning and satisfaction with life. But you have to put your heart into it.
Q: The Hidden Gifts of Helping covers your personal spiritual journey of helping others and how it actually helped you and your family through a difficult time. Tell us about that.
This was a really tough move. We discovered very quickly that our relationships were not what they should be. Little things created emotional over-reactions that were not typical of us. My wife and 13-year-old son were really angry, and I was too because I had served a school in Ohio faithfully and beautifully for 20 years, only to have my department chair tell me that the department was no longer going to cover even a penny of my salary. He was aggressively secular, running around with neo-atheist books by people like Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), and constantly pushing them intellectually. Whenever someone applied to our programs who came with any Christian background, he would always look at me and say that we had better be really careful because it could be a “Christer.” My going away luncheon talk, delivered by the Chair, just happened to be entitled “Why I Hate Religion.” So I was not real pleased with the environment and felt more than a little marginalized, even though I am a world famous medical ethicist. So clearly I had some resentments to overcome. There was such a sense of loss and isolation.
This was a HUGE valley for us all, and so for me it was time to get very serious about faith, about the life of Christ, and how if we stick with love we will ultimately come out victorious. We all helped people a lot. My wife worked with kids who have special learning needs, my son volunteered at the local hospital, and I just did so much pro bono speaking and helping and listening and praying. And in the end, we got through it, but it took a couple of years to really make peace with it all. Now we are fine, really fine. And I know that we can win with faith, hope, and love, even in the dark scenes of life. God wrote the play, and we will see a better day. But you have to stick with active love and pray a lot, because if you give in to rumination and bitterness, it will eventually hurt you and probably even kill you, literally.
The Hidden Gifts of Helping by Stephen G. Post
Jossey-Bass ~ February 22, 2011
ISBN 978-0470887813/Hardcover/224 Pages