Why We Feel Good When We Serve
If you have ever tried to recruit volunteers to serve, there is a good chance you said something like “You will feel good when you do it.” You said that because it’s true. We do in fact feel good when we serve. As a pastor, I often told my congregation there is a special joy that comes from serving, and pretty much everyone who heard that understood it.
But why? Why do we feel good when we serve? Is it simply a warm feeling somewhere deep inside that is hard to describe but we know it when we feel it? Is it knowledge we are doing the right thing (I call it the Wilford Brimley effect from his old commercials for Quaker Oats)? Is it because we believe our standing with our peers is enhanced by our serving?
Hard Wired to Serve
It turns out we are hard wired to serve. There are biological reasons for why we feel good when we serve. Medical science has long known that volunteering contributes to better health. The most recent contribution to this knowledge is Marta Zaraska’s Growing Young: How Friendship, Kindness, and Optimism Can Help You Live to 100. Zaraska has replaced the conventional thinking of diet and exercise as keys to a healthier life with convincing arguments and ample evidence that social engagement, kindness, and/or serving do more for longevity. That’s counterintuitive for most of us.
And it was for Marta Zaraska, too… until she took a closer look at what actually works. After years of research, she concluded that “diet and exercise [are] not the most important things… to encourage my family’s longevity. Instead of shopping for organic goji berries, I should concentrate on our social lives and [emotional] makeup. I should look for a purpose in life, not the best fitness tracker.”
Each of us has what Zaraska calls a caregiving system—biological processes or parts of our brain that encourages us to care for others. She confirms that this system is in place to help us care for our young (human babies are the most vulnerable of all animals) and it contributes to better, stronger communities which in itself aids survival. Actually, there are 2 aspects of this system: one is reward-inducing and the other is stress-reducing.
The book is a fascinating read and I commend it, but I have only the space here to focus on the benefits of serving. Zaraska discusses the medical and emotional benefits. I will add a third—spiritual benefits.
Serving Makes Us Healthier
It’s a fact: serving reduces mortality by 22% – 44%. People who volunteer have 29% lower risk of high blood pressure, 17% lower risk of inflammation levels, and spend 38% fewer nights in the hospital.
How many times have you heard how bad stress is for your health? But how do we reduce our stress? Serving others does that. Our brains have a part called the amygdala which is the fight-or-flight center. When we are stressed, the amygdala is triggered so that either we feel threatened and angry or we try to escape what we perceive as a threat. Serving actually calms the amygdala. As Zaraska puts it, “helping others calms us down.”
The vagus (the long snake of a nerve bundle that connects the brain, heart, and gut) helps us relax after stress. Zaraska refers to the vagus as the nerve of compassion and caring. “When people engage in activities that make them experience compassion, the activity of their vagus goes up,” says Zaraska. At one high school in Canada, students were divided into 2 groups. The first group was to volunteer at a nearby elementary school helping kids in after-school programs. The second group was wait-listed. When blood samples from all the teens were compared, a clear image emerged: those who volunteered had significantly lower levers of an inflammatory marker called interleukin 6. Increased levels of interleukin 6 can double the risk of dying within the next 5 years. There is much more to the medical benefits of serving, but perhaps this is enough to show we are hard wired to serve.
Serving Makes Us Happier
Zaraska conducted her own personal (unscientific) experiment to see if serving others does in fact enhance our mood. Over 7 days she alternated between going about her normal activities on some days and focusing on showing others kindness on others. For example, on one of her “kindness days,” she left a smiley face sticky note on a neighbor’s car. She bought and delivered chocolates for a lady at the library. In the evening she left five-star ratings for her favorite restaurants. The results: “I don’t know whether my telomeres got longer and whether my cortisol response was more healthy, but I certainly felt better, happier. Broccoli has never given me this feeling, that’s for sure.”
She included in her experiment the measurement of certain markers indicating stress levels. What she found was on her days of kindness to others her body had lower levels of stress. The testing even showed that her stress levels came down as she was engaged in helping others. She adds: “A pleasant mood is not the only benefit we may derive from [serving] others. The gains can be as varied as better sleep, better hearing, stronger muscles, and lower blood pressure.”
Serving Makes God Happier
If you are a church leader, what I have said above may be interesting, even intriguing, but something doesn’t feel right. Are we supposed to ask believers to serve because it will make them live longer, happier lives? Are we to appeal to their drive to survive? Even if all this about medial and emotional benefits of serving is true, what about God’s commands to care for the poor and oppressed (Deuteronomy 15:11)? Is it not self-serving to help others because of the benefits that we derive from it?
“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.'”Deuteronomy 15:11 ESV
If we are indeed hard wired to serve, is that not so because God made us that way? Perhaps medical science is only now discovering the physical and emotional benefits of serving, but they have been there all along. Now we can say it with more conviction than ever: God made us to serve (Matthew 20:28).
In my book The Samaritan Way: Lifestyle Compassion Ministry, I argue that “receiving a blessing” as a result of our service is an unworthy motive for serving. Rather, being moved by God’s Spirit to share with others in need is better. Living as Jesus lived in serving people in need is more noble and more obedient.
Serving not only calms us from stress and enhances our mood, but it also demonstrates God’s love and I submit that is a much better reason to do it. Serving may help us be heathier and live longer, but it also helps people see that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the Father of Jesus loves them. And that can do more for them than food in their bellies or clothes on their back.
If you are a church leader, do Zaraska’s claims strengthen your appeals for people to serve or dilute what most believers consider spiritual reasons for serving? Do you think the information in this blog will produce an “I told you so” response in most people or something else?
I’ve long believed that serving others makes us feel good or healthier. After reading a book about healing, I learned the phrase “the disease of introspection” which means when we focus inward all the time, it becomes unhealthy and can be detrimental to our mental and physical health. When we focus outward, on other people, we feel better for helping someone. Then that leads me to the definition of JOY….Jesus, others, yourself!!!
Thanks, Chesley!! Thanks for reading and giving feedback. We appreciate it. The point of this blog is to shed new light on an already commonly held belief which I believe is appropriate for a blog.
This article reminds me of a C.S.Lewis quote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” By focusing our attention, actions, and activities on others we exercise the spiritual act of humility. Praise God for showing us how to live! Like Jesus said,”it is more blessed to give than to receive. (Act. 20:35, NLT).
Thanks, Gaylon. Appreciate so much your readership and feedback.
I do think we are hard wired to serve. As a Christian, serving others points them to Jesus as the main motive, and the “feel good” part is a secondary result. I love these quotes: “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” Mother Teresa “You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.” John Wooden God calls us to be faithful, and when we are, the spiritual and physical rewards are His blessings to us.
thanks, Elaine. I love the quotes!
David, yes, it feels good to help someone. It is amazing how God can take our limited assistance to someone and make that “gift” much bigger, better, and more useful than our initial gift to one person.
A very uplifting message; thank you !
Thanks, Carl. You are so right and I maintain that such is the “sweet spot” of serving!
Good article on motivation for serving others. Those of us who have made a lifestyle of serving will anecdotally support the claims of Zaraska. I also agree with you, that’s not the main reason we serve, we serve to please and honor God. This article may help someone begin serving, even out of selfish motives, but once they start they can experience the true joy of making God smile. I only saw one misprint. “Broccoli has never given my this feeling, that’s for sure.” “My” should read “me.” Since this is from a quote by Zaraska, if that’s what she wrote I would recommend using (sic) so the reader of your blog will know that you are quoting directly from her.
Thanks for the feedback, Nathan. Although we proof our blogs several times, this typo slipped through.
Great article. I love that we are hard wired to serve!
Thanks, Vicki. We are encouraged.
Thanks for the article on serving. A true test of our Christianity (Christ in us), is being characterized by service.
Jesus always modeled the heart of a servant – all the way to the cross.
Thanks for the feedback, Jim. Please share as you see fit.
BTW, Gene says “Hello!”
Great article! I’ll do anything to make my telomeres longer!!:) Seriously, as a scientist, I appreciated the references here.
I knew you would like this one. Thanks
Great article and so true.
Thanks for the feedback, Cindy. Stay tuned.
Great read David. I’ve often said – ‘If we are tired of serving and no longer have a passion for it – we can just tell God we have retired.’
Only problem with this – if we are retired from our service here on Earth, – maybe there is no longer a need to have us stay around here – and God will call us home. So yes, I think you nailed it when you said – longevity is correlated with service to others. We feel better when we serve and God sees us doing his work and grants us more time to serve Him. It’s a Win, Win!