How Helping Others Can Help -- and Harm -- Your Health

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For Eric S. Kim, a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, the inspiration for studying the impact of having a meaningful purpose was his grandparents. They ran an orphanage on the border of North and South Korea after the Korean War, which he says kept them active and accounted for their good health. After they retired, their health deteriorated. "They stopped running around every day," he says. He suspects that having a purpose -- taking care of children -- motivated them to live a healthier life. His research bears that out. A study he coauthored in the 2013 Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that, among those ages 50 and older, having a meaningful purpose in life was associated with a reduced risk of strokes. "Intuitively, it seems that if they want to keep accomplishing their purpose, they want to remain healthy" and will continue engaging in healthy behaviors, Kim says.

Next: Finding Work and Purpose After Caregiving

Kim's research represents a growing body of evidence demonstrating the value of having a purpose, and a new model of providing incentives for living life in a more positive, optimistic way that brings both emotional and physical benefits. These results are particularly significant for caregivers, who often neglect their own health while focusing attention on others.

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Reducing short-term stress while benefiting long-term health

A study by Patricia A. Boyle, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, found that those who had a greater purpose in life were 2.4 times less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than people who had a weak purpose or no purpose in life. "People with a strong purpose in life versus a weaker one live longer," says Vic Strecher, a professor and Director for Innovation at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and the author of On Purpose. In addition to reduction in Alzheimer's disease, he says those with a purpose are also less likely to suffer from heart attacks, strokes, and depression. He says the reason isn't yet clear but could be related to a reduction in stress, since those with a strong purpose in life may be more directed and apt to worry less about stressful events. High stress can contribute to sleep disturbances, which lead to poor health outcomes. He says that having a purpose is a better model to proactively motivate people to engage in healthier behaviors. Saying to a smoker, "If you don't stop smoking, you'll die" isn't an effective message, he says. But those with a purpose will be motivated to stop smoking so they'll have more vitality and energy to achieve that purpose.

Purposeful striving: Protective and productive for the immune system. Studies support the general idea that purposeful striving tends to be both protective and promotes people toward activities that are more healthy, so people live healthier lives, says Patrick McKnight, an associate professor of psychology at George Mason University who has researched the issue. He says a purpose, to have the desired healthful effects, must not be focused on one's personal gain, since that comes at the expense of others. He says that when you're striving for something, a biological process takes place that leads to better immune functioning. Even a simple purpose can be effective, he says. For example, providing a resident of a retirement community a plant allows them to be the caregiver for that plant, and they internalize that as important.

How helping others can help yourself

Dr. Robert Brooks, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, says there are demonstrated benefits to a "helper's high." When people help others, they feel better about themselves. He has seen many patients, initially anxious and depressed, who, when they began to help others, felt a sense of purpose in their lives that improved their emotional health. However, he says that helping others cannot come at the expense of taking care of yourself.

Caregiving: When helping others can hurt you

And that's a common problem, says Mary J. Connaughton, a nurse and principal owner of Connaughton Consulting, a healthcare consulting practice. She says she often sees caregivers exhausting themselves while caring for others. Many "tuck their chin in and just plow through, trying to make it through the day," leading to exhaustion. She sees many people in their fifties having cardiac problems brought on by the stress of having to juggle caregiving with outside employment.

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Caregivers often put themselves last and feel like they're duty bound for the task. A positive reframing, an antidote to feeling they're burdened by caregiving, could be, "Because of the skills and loving kindness I have in my heart, I'm able to offer this care to my parents at this time," she says. Strecher says that having a caregiver say something like, "I'm a caregiver to my mother" in itself seems to help buffer stressful events.

Kendall Cotton Bronk, an associate professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University and author of Purpose in Life, says caregiving is one of the few areas where people report a higher level of purpose and meaning but lower levels of positive effect. So they should keep the "big picture" in their minds, realizing that they're helping a person at a very important time in their life, even though they don't enjoy every moment of it. That can help reap psychological benefits, she says.

Caregiving and purpose: Self-care is key to reestablishing purpose

The pursuit of being a good caregiver should lead to healthier behaviors, says Carole Ann Drick, RN, PhD, president-elect of the American Holistic Nurses Association. She says self-care is essential. If caregivers don't take care of themselves, they can't take care of others. Sacrificing sleep, for instance, can lead to irritability, dehydration, or the inability to make sound decisions. When caregivers begin to live more healthfully by nourishing their own needs, they tend to relax and may find caregiving to be less stressful, she says.

Sometimes the solution is to step back, since many caregivers get burned out. "Get someone to assist and think about the good you're doing and how your effort is appreciated by your relatives and society in general," says Peter A. Spevak, who ran the Center for Applied Motivation in Rockville, Maryland, for 30 years. "You have to reestablish meaning in what you're doing. Otherwise, you get beaten down," he says.

How to develop a meaningful purpose

So besides realizing the value in their caregiving job, how can caregivers develop a meaningful purpose?

1. Identify three to five core values that best represent who you are.
One way to determine this is to think about what you'd like written on your tombstone, what you want your legacy to be. Then rate how important each value is to you.

2. Decide on a brief purpose statement that's right for your life.
Think about your top five priorities, those activities that provide you the most meaning and purpose in life, says Brooks. If a priority is being a good parent to your children, make sure you build in time to do that. Though you may not have control over being a caregiver, think about other areas where you could make a difference. He recalls working with a woman in her fifties who was caring for an elderly parent. Once a week, she volunteered at a school, reading to children, which buoyed her, he says. Engaging in a meaningful activity for even just a half hour a week can make a difference, he says.

3. Make the purpose meaningful to you.
It need not be lofty, Strecher says. He points to a custodian's purpose: to keep the school where he worked clean for students. A breast cancer survivor decided to paint to express her experience and help others express their emotions.

4. Check in, to determine how you're aligning yourself with values that help you achieve your purpose.
For example, if you want to be a vital caregiver, make sure you're doing what you need to stay healthy so you're up to the job.

5. Build in time for exercise.
This can help you achieve any purpose. Walking regularly for even a ten-minute period throughout the day can improve your emotional well-being, Brooks says. Strecher has a free downloadable app that helps you determine your own purpose and tracks how well aligned you are with it. For more info, go to

Julie Halpert

Julie Halpert is a freelance journalist with more than two decades of experience writing for over two dozen national publications. See full bio