A Little Happier: The Helper Gets More Help Than the Helped

Ancient philosophers and modern scientists agree: To be happy, we need relationships. We need strong, enduring bonds; we need to feel like we belong; we need to be able to confide.

We need to be able to get support—and perhaps surprisingly, for happiness, it’s just as important that we give support.

For instance, I’ve been surprised by the number of accounts I’ve read by people who say that their lives were transformed and even saved by getting a dog.

I was reminded of this principle recently, because in her senior year of high school, my daughter Eleanor joined a club where high-school students helped out in the classrooms of younger children in the school. Eleanor ended up spending a lot of time with a class of first graders.

She loved this program. She told me that she’d wished she’d known about this activity earlier, so she could’ve done it throughout high school. The younger children adored her: they crowded around her, they told her their stories, they loved trying to stump her with factual questions and riddles, they drew pictures for her, they asked her about her rings and the stickers on her phone case, they tried to find out information about her and trade it as gossip amongst themselves.

This connection did seem to make the first-graders happier.

I said to Eleanor, “This is really wonderful. To a little kid, getting some friendly attention from an older student matters so much, it can be really meaningful.” I couldn’t resist adding a little happiness-bully reminder:  “Remember the teacher proverb, ‘The children who are hardest to love need it the most.’ Make sure to offer all of them your attention, even the ones who may not seem to want it.”

Eleanor agreed.

What struck me, however, from my vantage point as her mother, was how happy this activity made Eleanor. Whenever she came home from her volunteer days, she was full of energy and good cheer.

She was showing up in the classroom to help with those first graders, but she was the one who was most helped.

Recently, I read a fascinating collection of essays, Interior States, by Megan O’Gieblyn. In the essay “The Insane Idea,” she explores the debate around the effectiveness of the organization Alcoholics Anonymous.

One feature of A.A. is that a person entering the group may ask someone to be their “sponsor.” Here’s how A.A. materials describe sponsorship: “An alcoholic who has made some progress in the recovery program shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety through A.A.”

O’Gieblyn writes of A.A.:

Those who complain that the program is run by “nonprofessionals” often miss the fact that, according to…[the] model, the primary beneficiary is the provider of aid, not its receiver. AA has often been labeled a “self-help group,” but it is in fact the opposite: a fellowship for people who have utterly failed in their attempts to help themselves.

I was curious about her argument, so I went online to look at materials created for A.A. members, and this is what I read:

How does sponsorship help the sponsor?

Sponsorship strengthens the older member’s sobriety. The act of sharing sobriety makes it easier for a member to live without alcohol. By helping others, alcoholics find that they help themselves. Sponsorship also offers the satisfaction that comes from assuming responsibility for someone other than oneself. In a very real sense, it fills the need, felt by most human beings, to help others over rough spots.

We benefit by teaching whatever we need to learn, whether that’s a child teaching another child how to do with homesickness, a college sophomore teaching a college freshman how to hand in work on time, or a university professor teaching grad students how to write more clearly, or an alcoholic on how to stay away from alcohol. I certainly use this principle in my own life. When it comes to happiness, good habits, and the five senses, for me, research is me-search; I teach what I need to learn.

By seeking to help others, we’re often helping ourselves most. Do good, feel good—it’s really true. While some people argue that this principle means that true altruism isn’t possible, I think that it’s one of the helpful aspects of human nature.

As one of my favorite aphorists Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach wrote, “People for whom we are a source of strength give us our support in life.”

In helping, we are being helped.




Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.