The holiday season is a natural time for reaching out to those around us who are in need. We volunteer for different reasons, but almost always experience the same benefit: We feel good.
But does this benefit go beyond the "feel-good" phenomenon to proven health benefits?
Absolutely, according to Stephen G. Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York.
"If the benefits of volunteering or altruism could be put into a pill, it would be a bestseller overnight," said Post, who reviewed more than 50 studies showing that people who act sincerely for the benefit of others enjoy happiness, health and even increased longevity.
"Engagement and volunteering is the new hybrid health club for the 21st century that's free to join,'' enthuses Harvard's Thomas H. Sander. "Research shows it miraculously improves both your health and the community's through the work performed and the social ties built."
Giving to others can be transformative. Years ago, I was serving as headmaster of a Connecticut boarding school when we decided to make community service a graduation requirement. Despite stiff opposition from some who felt that required giving was inherently wrong, we forged ahead.
During the first term, a sullen boy who greatly resisted the service requirement was doing his assigned Meals on Wheels rounds. He knocked at a front door and got no response. He could have walked away, but something told him to try the back door, too. He got in and discovered that the elderly resident had fallen. Paramedics told the student that his persistence saved the man's life.
It also transformed the teenager's life. Overnight, this angry, difficult boy became a calm and productive young man. His transformation, caused by a simple act of kindness, was a highlight of my 31-year career as an educator.
The benefits appear to be both emotional and physical. A recent study, sponsored by the Corporation for National and Community Service, showed that states with higher volunteer rates have overall better health and lower rates of heart disease.
"Self-esteem increased and symptoms of depression decreased from becoming an important part of the solution for a person in need,'' the Huffington Post reported this month in an article about the study. "The act of being of service and exchanging positive energy with another human is a psychological and emotional win-win."
This is a case where modern science seems to coincide with ancient spiritual wisdom. As an avid student of the Bible, I like to look for these "coincidences" that seem to strengthen or maybe even underlie what scientists are proving empirically. Here are a few of my favorites biblical gems:
• From the book of Proverbs: "He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed; for he giveth of his bread to the poor."
• And from Isaiah, who saw with a prophet's clear eye the connection between altruism and health: "...deal thy bread to the hungry ... and bring the poor that are cast out to thy house ... then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily."
There's still plenty of time left in this holiday season to explore opportunities to serve, help and heal. You'll be helping to forge a healthier community and a healthier life for yourself.
Bob Clark is a Christian Science practitioner from Belleair. Read his blog at simplyhealthyflorida.com.