In recovery, I’ve met some of the most giving and altruistic people imaginable. A woman who brings lunch every day to a gentleman who lives at her bus stop. A man who provided a teen with a spot in a treatment facility, even though they had never met before. A woman who opened her home to a new girl in town with nowhere to go. Strangers who act like my brothers and sisters, who have offered me meals, coffee, rides, cigarettes for doing nothing other than saying hello.
Altruism is the practice of unselfish concern and devotion to the welfare of others. This principle is the polar opposite of my life as an addict—self-involved, ego-driven, looking out for my interests alone. I was always hoping someone would “give me a break,” offer me a smoke, give me a discount, maybe a hundred dollar bill. I was never thinking about the people out there doing kind things, or why they did it.
Then, in recovery, I was encouraged to be “of service,” and I had no idea what that meant. There are many ways we can be involved in our recovery community, but there is an atmosphere of love and acceptance in recovery that goes beyond service commitments. There is something mystical about the empathy we feel for each other. On a primal level, we know that love is a force that helps us survive.
Let’s Get Together and Feel Alright
What is it about doing a good deed that gives us the warm-and-fuzzies? Perhaps we know all too well what it means to feel down-and-out, hopeless and helpless. Perhaps there is something about helping one another that feeds the soul, that is extremely human.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, has studied happiness for more than 20 years. Her research has found lots of evidence that positive activities boost positive emotions, thoughts and behavior, which in turn improves our well-being. “When you’re kind to others, you feel good as a person—more moral, optimistic, and positive,” she says.
One study found that kindness can help to ease anxiety. For four weeks, researchers at the University of British Columbia told their high-anxiety participants to do kind acts for people 6 times or more a week. The participants could hold a door open, donate to a charity, or buy lunch for a friend. After a month, researchers found that doing these kind things led to significant increases in people’s positivity, and decreases in their social avoidance.
Believe it or not, doing something nice for another person actually gives you a natural high. Our brains have a rewards center, and the brain releases dopamine when we do something that we enjoy. That can range from eating a spoonful of sugar or accomplishing a tough task at work. The same holds true for when we are kind—our dopamine levels elevate and we physically feel good. Some call this a “helper’s high.”
When we do something kind, our bodies also release a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is produced when our brain experiences emotional warmth, and the hormone builds our feelings of trust and bonding. Doing a kind deed helps to build our sense of closeness with that person. When we are kind as a daily practice, both at home and with people we’ve never met, we start to feel connected to the humans around us, like we are an important part of our planet.
The best news: when we give of ourselves, we can live longer. Dr. Stephen Post is a professor at Case Western Reserve University, and he has spent much of his life studying compassion and service. His research revealed that giving of ourselves can increase life satisfaction and improve physical health. Depression is reduced and our average life-span actually lengthens!
There are so many suggested remedies and formulas for happiness, but the answer is simple. Helping someone else actually helps you the most.
The Love Bug
The most awesome thing about random acts of kindness is that they’re contagious. When we see someone stop traffic to help a turtle cross the street, or when we see kids sharing their toys, we feel something even though we aren’t responsible for the kindness. Some might say they feel “moved,” or inspired. Our brains are actually hardwired in such a way that we can feel and experience things just by watching another person’s behavior.
Our brains have “mirror neurons” which are activated whenever our brain starts to think about performing certain actions or we are closely watching others. Studies by a UCLA neurologist & neuroscientist, Dr. Iacoboni, show that the brain sees other people as reflections of ourselves. It’s as if we’re looking at ourselves in a mirror when we watch someone else.
When someone smiles, we tend to smile back automatically. When someone cries or feels sad, the mirror neurons in our brain fire as if we are actually feeling their emotions. In these moments we have to restrain ourselves in order to not mirror what we observe.
Mirror neurons are a strong case for the idea that humans are hardwired for empathy. We all have different genetic make-ups and environmental upbringings, yet these neurons are a part of our biology. When we witness a kind act, we get a taste of the “helper’s high” and are more likely to pay it forward.
A scientific study reported on this very phenomenon. An anonymous 28-year-old walked into a clinic and donated a kidney. Then, the spouses or other family members of kidney recipients donated one of their kidneys to someone else in need. One act of kindness set off a ‘domino effect’, as it was called in the New England Journal of Medicine report. Ten people received a new kidney as a consequence of that one anonymous donor.
Doing good can make us feel good, can improve our health, and can send a ripple effect out through our community. Of course we will have our bad days and bad things will still happen, but there is a power in kindness that we can all harness and practice.
The Concept of Service
Service is a term that used to intimidate me. I associated the word “service” with community service logs, my job in fast-food, and what I need when my car breaks down. But the concept has so much more depth than the simple performance of required duties.
Service is an act of helpful activity. Yes, there are organized forms of service that we have the opportunity to get involved in. Volunteer at a local hospital, school, library, shelter, or soup kitchen. Within the recovery community, some dedicate their time to recovery advocacy efforts, while others work with fellow people who are living with addictions.
At its essence, though, service is being useful. I try to remember this from day to day because I think I can get better at it every day. We do not need an organized, scheduled volunteer activity in order to be useful. Opportunities present themselves every other moment.
We can be useful by improving the quality of someone’s day, making a task easier for them, or relieving some of the stress from a situation. We can be useful just doing something small that contributes to the betterment of something larger:
- Smile and make eye-contact with people when you’re in a store or on the bus
- Buy coffee or lunch for the person behind you in line
- In rush-hour traffic, let someone merge into your lane
- Compliment the cashier, cook, or a co-worker
- Over-tip your waiter
- Pick up trash in the parking lot when you walk into a store or restaurant
Our acts of kindness do not need to be life-changing, nor save the entire planet. They may not even be noticed or recognized. The point is, random acts of kindness can accumulate. A smile can be a breath of fresh air in someone’s bad day. A big tip may pay for someone’s dinner. Service goes beyond our scheduled activities and involvement in the recovery community—we can be of service daily in our small acts of kindness.