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?