Helping others and ourselves

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Photo by Julia Larson from Pexels

This article is contributed by the Department of Health.

Does “helping others” promote one’s own mental health?

“Doing favours for others” is common in our society.  In fact, a large-scale academic study has found that people who either donate for public welfare affairs or help others generally have better life satisfaction. This holds true in more than one hundred countries with different levels of economic status (e.g. Canada, India, South Africa, and Uganda).  Research also shows that compared to spending on oneself, spending money on others (e.g. buying small gifts for friends or sick children, etc.) will bring more satisfaction and lasting happiness.  Therefore, the belief that “helping behaviours can benefit one’s own mental health” is supported by many scientific evidence.

How does it work? 

Scientists have found that when helping others, some people: 

  • receive “dopamine (a hormone inducing happiness and excitement)” in their body more effectively;
  • appear less affected by their own ill feelings and stress;
  • get higher “self-esteem” which improves mental health;
  • experience positive emotions (e.g. kindness, joy, thankfulness, and trust); and
  • develop better interpersonal relationships which protect physical and mental health.

Any points to pay attention to when helping others? 

If we have a “helping mind” but not have adequate ability, or we cannot adjust our thinking and make good use of others’ support, our mental health may become worse instead.

Some studies on the caregivers of chronic illness patients have found that when caregivers are overburdened by the care demands, they may suffer from negative emotions, such as anxiety, depression, guilt, and feeling no way out.  Overemphasis on one’s personal responsibility may prohibit sharing duties with others and lead to undue self-blame, causing strong ill feelings to the caregivers. 

Research has also found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, people with a higher tendency to help others display greater problems of anxiety and depression. Maybe, they are more sensitive to other people’s suffering and therefore easier to feel others’ pain too.  Also, during the epidemic, there are many barriers and it is very difficult to offer help. Being eager to help but unable to help may make them feel disappointed and sad.

Therefore, when helping others, we need to be realistic about our own abilities and situations. Remember to help according to our ability, to manage our own stress, and to make good use of others’ support.