The Golden Rule, Karma, whatever you want to call it, “doing unto others as you would have done to you” is used so often it seems cliché. But, as it turns out, this advice goes beyond principle and may in fact be backed by science. Psychologists have dubbed it the “helper’s high”—a blissful feeling that you get after you do something for someone else that is helpful or kind.
These euphoric emotions are attributed to mood-boosting chemicals, mainly dopamine and oxytocin, that are released in the brain after a person performs a good deed. While regular volunteering or random acts of kindness may not make it to the top of a busy caregiver’s to-do list, there is a simple way of tapping into this mutually beneficial practice.
Helper’s High Is More Complicated for Family Caregivers
The 2017 Doing Good Is Good for You Study conducted by UnitedHealthcare confirmed that helper’s high is in fact beneficial. The study found that, among people who performed volunteer work in the past 12 months, 93 percent noted an improvement in their mood, 88 percent noted improved self-esteem and 79 percent said that they experienced lower stress levels.
So, why is it that family caregivers, many of whom spend most of their waking hours caring for others, aren’t constantly benefitting from a rush of powerful endorphins?
According to Stephen Post, Ph.D., director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University and author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Happier, Healthier Life by the Simple Act of Giving, caregivers simply spend too much time and energy caring for their loved ones to see the benefits of the helper’s high. It turns out that there is a limit to the beneficial impact of this phenomenon.
“…A strong correlation exists between the well-being, happiness, health, and longevity of people who are emotionally and behaviorally compassionate, so long as they are not overwhelmed by helping tasks,” Dr. Post wrote in a 2005 article on altruism published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. There are myriad stressors that can occur in and alongside the caregiving role, such as lost jobs, financial trouble, strained family relationships, and the pain of watching a loved one decline. All these factors can take a heavy toll on a caregiver’s mood and feelings of resilience. However, focusing on helping others in another way—even occasionally—will allow you to tap into this rejuvenating phenomenon.
How Helping Fellow Caregivers Helps You
While helping even more people may seem like the last thing a busy caregiver needs on their plate, it doesn’t mean they can’t find joy in assisting their peers. The key is to approach this undertaking from a completely different angle; think moral support instead of hands-on care or face-to-face volunteering.
Post, a former family caregiver himself, says that participation in support groups and forums can be an excellent way for caregivers to reap the benefits of another kind of service-induced euphoria: the helper therapy principle.
The helper therapy principle is the term that was introduced in 1965 by Frank Riessman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and pioneer of the self-help movement, to describe the benefits that people get when they assist others in mutual-aid support groups. Research has shown that both the helpers and the helped can benefit from gathering to give and receive support. Those who are helped receive guidance and reassurance, while the helpers receive the positive feelings of increased relevance and self-esteem that coincide with translating their personal experiences into advice for others.
According to Post, caregiver support groups and forums “give people in that community the opportunity to help others. There can be a lot of laughter and positive emotion when people are listening to and supporting one another.”
Furthermore, caregiver support groups foster a valuable sense of connection that many caregivers are lacking. Caring for an aging loved one involves a great deal of responsibility and time commitment, which tends to socially isolate those who take on this role. Both deep emotional relationships (i.e. with a spouse or partner) and broader social relationships with coworkers, friends and extended family may suffer when one becomes a caregiver, often resulting in loneliness.
The Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 report published by AARP and The National Alliance for Caregiving found that “feelings of loneliness are associated with fairly strong feelings of stress and strain as well as decreased health for caregivers.” By participating in a support group and interacting with one’s peers, caregivers can combat loneliness, stress and caregiver burnout while improving their mood and receiving personalized advice and encouragement.
Benefits of Online Caregiver Support Groups
One drawback, however, is that caregiver support groups can be difficult to find and make time for. The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to seek out an in-person meeting to find ways to help your fellow caregiver while helping yourself. Online caregiver support groups and forums are a wonderful way for busy caregivers to connect with one another at any time of the day or night.
For example, the AgingCare Caregiver Forum is home to thousands of family caregivers, many of whom are eager to share their experiences and offer support on a variety of topics, including:
- Caregiver burnout and guilt
- Common legal issues related to caregiving
- How to handle difficult elders
- Achieving work-life balance
- End-of-life care and grief
- Navigating elder care options
- Paying for long-term care
- Coping with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, incontinence and other age-related health conditions
Tips for a Positive Caregiver Support Group Experience
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., psychotherapist and author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out Of Dysfunction, offers the following suggestions for ways that caregivers can find personal happiness by supporting one another in support group settings.
Send InspirationThere is value in sending someone you care about an uplifting message. Try this: once or twice a week, pick a caregiver in your life and send them a quick, inspirational quote to start off their day. Even if they can’t respond immediately, chances are that your gift of encouragement was noticed and will eventually be reciprocated in some way.
Listen With Love“So many of us are lost about how to help a friend in times of grief, but all that’s really needed is a little kindness and a listening ear,” Tessina notes. Even when you have no specific advice or guidance, it may help a fellow caregiver just to let them know that you are listening. Send someone who is going through a rough time a short message telling them that they are heard and that others are thinking about them.
Regift Your ExperiencesThe gift of experience is arguably one of the most precious commodities a person can receive—and most veteran caregivers have plenty of cautionary tales, tips and personal anecdotes to share. Seek out someone who is going through a situation that is similar to your own and offer your opinion on how (or how not) to handle it. Your fellow caregivers will benefit from any well-thought-out advice you can provide.
Mind Your Ps and QsWhen offering up and receiving advice, it is important to remember to be kind and courteous. Don’t forget two of the most important phrases in the English language: please and thank you. “Every gift is an expression of love, and every giver should be thanked graciously, no matter what the gift is,” Tessina says. Even when you’re interacting online, remember that there are real people behind the screen names and avatars you’re responding to, and they deserve to be treated as such.
Among experts and policy makers, there is an ongoing search for better ways of helping people cope with the challenges of caregiving. In the meantime, by engaging with and assisting one another, family caregivers have an opportunity to take advantage of the scientifically proven cycle of well-being that can occur when people in a group decide to lift one another up.
For his part, Post feels that all too often the rewards of caregiving can get lost in the grim language that has infected the issue. “Even in caregiving, there can be flourishing and growth,” he encourages. “It creates community and allows people to form deeper relationships.”