The other day I was reminded of a Fred Rogers (AKA Mr. Rogers) interview in which he shares an important message:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”
The news always highlights the worst bits. The sensational bits that leave us feeling hopeless about our own humanity. But the truth is, the news only tells a part of the story. It sometimes has to be up to us to find the people who are doing good during all the bad. These are the helpers who care about making things better. These are the people who want to make the world a better place in spite of and despite the challenges.
Is that person you? Are you “the helper”?
It’s ok if the answer is no. Maybe you haven’t done much helping lately. If you’ve been feeling quite helpless these days, the idea of becoming “the helper” probably evades you. You might be thinking, what’s the point? Every time you turn on the news there’s another story of deep hatred, divided people, suffering, inequality. The list goes on…
But the thing is, I know that you’re reading this because you care about being a happier person. You actively work on it in one way or another. So for now, let’s forget about the fact that helping other people is altruistic. Instead, let’s focus on why helping other people is good for you and your overall happiness.
You’ve heard it time and time again. Feeling down? Go volunteer. You’ll feel better. I know this probably isn’t breaking news to you. But in all the years that I’ve been a psychologist, and for many years before my time, this advice has remained a constant.
Why? Because helping others can allow you to tap into the compassion department of your brain. And compassion is the key to unlocking your happiness.
Here’s an example. Dr. Stephen Trzeciak is a physician and scientist who works with critically ill patients. He says that throughout his career he has experienced severe burnout (a crisis many of our healthcare workers are facing at troubling levels). Burnout, of course, does not produce a happy, healthy person. It also leads to inadequate care for patients, which leads to more patient suffering, followed by more burnout for healthcare workers. It’s a vicious cycle. But once Trzeciak discovered the importance of compassion, he was able to put an end to this cycle. Compassion was significant not just for his patients and their families, but also for himself. It helped raise his morale and fight off burnout.
Moreover, in his book, Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference, Stephen Trzeciak and co-writer Anthony Mazzarelli prove that having compassionate healthcare workers directly correlates to higher recovery rates, healthier people, and more positive clinical outcomes.
Thus, we see how compassion benefits both the giving and the receiving end of interactions.
Now, you may not be a doctor or healthcare worker, but you may be experiencing burnout from your own career, the news, or just everyday life. Compassion is still key! The “helper’s high” is a real thing. That is, as long as you make sure to infuse your helping with compassion. (E.g. If you help your mom make dinner, but you complain the whole time, you’re not doing anything beneficial for your well-being or hers :p).
If compassionate behavior doesn’t come naturally to you, then treat it like any other skill. Compassion is something that can be taught, learned, and practiced. It is something that you can improve. For example, Dr. Trzeciak made a conscious decision to be more compassionate. He took his time with patients and made a point to be there for them and their families, even if it meant sitting in silence while they dealt with difficult news. He made eye contact and really listened without interrupting. He paid attention to match his facial expressions to the emotions and feelings expressed by his patients. All of these actions showed empathy, and conveyed compassion. Just like Dr. Trzeciak, it is up to you to choose to be the compassionate helper.
One final note. If for some reason you can’t help others…Maybe you’re spread too thin between your job, family, and other duties—or maybe you’re dealing with chronic health issues and all your energy is focused on getting better. That’s ok. Instead, you can choose to do exactly what Mr. Rogers’s mom said and look for the helpers. Read news sites that share positive stories. Follow, like, and subscribe to people who are trying to make this world a better place. Donate. Share. There’s so much you can do to show your support and keep those stories alive.
Here are a few of my favorite places to look for the helpers: