Help Yourself By Helping Others
When pondering the key to happiness, we tend to think of things like sustained good health, and more time and money for recreation and relaxation. But what if the true key to happiness is actually about spending less time at play and relaxing, and more about spending time giving back, or volunteering?
According to research conducted by the London School of Economics1, people are happier the more they volunteer. This is because volunteering increases empathic emotions, which, in turn, contribute to elevated levels of happiness.
More empathy = more happiness
In an increasingly hectic and harried world—something physicians often experience more acutely than the population at large—many of us can feel we no longer have enough time to sleep, much less time to feel empathy toward others.
But research suggests that more empathy is actually the key to creating stable relationships—the glue that helps hold societies together. Feeling empathy toward others—something nearly everyone is capable of with awareness and practice—helps enhance life satisfaction and, in turn, feelings of happiness.
Unlike the atmosphere in a traditional practice or hospital environment, volunteering in a clinic can allow physicians an opportunity to spend more time with each patient and to see patients on a continuous, sustained basis. This enables physicians to see firsthand the bigger picture and the many challenges that patients often grapple with in their daily lives.
All We Need Is Love
It’s generally accepted that healthy social relationships are key to feelings of happiness and well being. Maslow’s research in the 1950’s helped establish that people need emotional belonging and social bonding and connections more than anything else (except safety) in order to feel happy and at ease.
Volunteer to stay healthy and live a longer life
People who volunteer regularly live longer on average than those who don’t. This is because volunteering makes people happier, and happier people tend to experience fewer health issues and setbacks, especially as they age.
Give more time to have more time
Feeling stressed and unhappy is often triggered by not having enough time to do everything on one’s plate. Ironically, when volunteering, people often experience a sensation of actually having more time, as opposed to less time.
This phenomenon is supported by a Harvard/Wharton research study2 involving over 2,000 people. The study demonstrated how selfless concern for the wellbeing of others, or altruism, is strongly associated with decreased stress and enhanced mental health.
So, although it might seem counterintuitive, spending more time volunteering actually creates a positive feedback loop: happy people give more, and giving, in turn, makes people happier. Everybody’s a winner!
Rekindle your passion for practicing medicine
Physicians who volunteer regularly are able to capture a much-needed mental break from the numerous daily stressors that contribute to physician burnout. This can also help revive and rejuvenate a physician’s early passion for practicing medicine.
If you are a physician interested in exploring volunteering opportunities, please visit the JAMA Network Career Center, which serves as a clearinghouse for the United States and abroad.
1“Doing well by doing good. The relationship between formal volunteering and self-reported health and happiness.”, Borgonovi F., Soc Sci Med. 2008 Jun;66(11):2321-34. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.01.011. Epub 2008 Mar 5. PMID: 18321629
2 “Giving time gives you time.”, Mogilner C, Chance Z, Norton MI.
Psychol Sci. 2012 Oct 1;23(10):1233-8. doi: 10.1177/0956797612442551. Epub 2012 Sep 12., PMID: 22972905
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