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resilience and aging 2

Resilience And Aging: Part 2- The Helper’s High: The benefits of altruism

August 15, 2018

This article is part of a 5-part weekly series on Resilience and Aging from our partner Dr. Gillian Leithman at Rewire to Retire.

Dr. Gillian Leithman offers her considerable expertise and knowledge on the challenging transition period between career and retirement. Her writing offers readers advice and insights into preparing to retire and living a fulfilling post-career life. 

Most people dream of a retirement in which they get to play, pursue hobbies and develop new interests. Finally, they get to be the master of their own fate. And when they reach retirement they do in fact thrive in their new environment.

For others, however, their new-found sense of freedom is overwhelming and having to fill it with meaningful things to do can be an emotionally daunting task. In fact, some of my clients have even described retirement as a trauma. One woman, Debbie, expressed that retirement felt like an amputation which left her feeling hollow and empty.

Many pre-retirees wrongly assume that what they will miss most in retirement is a steady income, when in fact retirees report that they long for the social connection provided by work. Personal relationships and bonds of friendship among colleagues meet our need for approval and belonging. Strong emotional ties often prevent employees from leaving their jobs, even when there is promise of greater financial reward elsewhere.

Researchers believe that working in an organization is one of the most important sources of belonging because of the amount of time people spend at work. We often take for granted that organizations provide us with meaningful work, opportunities to develop intimate relationships and a shared identity with similar others. Thus, leaving work and entering retirement can feel traumatic if one does not have meaningful activities in which to engage, or a social network with whom to spend time. 

The good news is that science has discovered that being altruistic, defined as being of service to others and giving of one’s time or resources, provides the same benefits that many of us derive from work.

Results from a recent Merrill Lynch survey indicate that eighty-five percent of retirees who volunteer report that they have developed important new friendships through their service, and they have met and connected with others with similar interests, values, and passions.

Similarly, there is an extensive body of academic research indicating that engagement in civic ventures contributes to psychological well-being. Helping others provides one with a sense of meaning and affirms that “my life matters.” It also increases positive emotions and self-esteem, predicts overall life satisfaction and is associated with less depression and feelings of helplessness.

The latter two variables are particularly important for people transitioning to retirement, as they are more vulnerable to depression and decline due to changing social roles.

Most interesting however, is the finding that helping others results in greater mental health benefits for the helper. Researchers believe that being of service to others causes a shift in one’s attention away from oneself, which requires focusing on another’s concerns. This process allows the helper to experience a reprieve of sorts, a refuge from contending with one’s own challenges, while focusing on the person in need of assistance.

Helping others also reinforces one’s identity as a good and giving person, which positively influences well-being. Current findings from the fields of neuroscience and psychology indicate that giving behaviour, be it in the form of one’s time or money cause the giver to reap what researchers refer to as the helper’s high. It seems that we are “wired” to be generous. Giving, researchers have found, activates the production of endorphins and has been likened to the reaction of learning that you are the winner of a lottery jackpot.

Research indicates that giving of one’s time or money results in a more satisfying and happy retirement experience. However, the greatest benefit is derived when one chooses (if you have the time, health and the means) to do both. So, spend some time thinking about the causes that you hold dear to your heart.

Most people who get involved with a charity, non-profit or personal cause by giving of their time, report feeling more fulfilled than those who only give money. It is a great way to make new friends and expand one’s social network.

The research is clear. Being altruistic is good for your health and your happiness.

Check back next week when we look at Resilience And Aging: Part 3- Realistic Optimism


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