Help Yourself by Helping Others

“Why should I help others?” I recently heard someone say. Now, that may come across as somewhat cold and callous, but in order to not take this person’s statement out of context, let me just say that he was under a tremendous mental strain at the time as a result of having gone through some rather massive personal problems.

This can happen to even the best of us. That is, when we are embroiled in our own personal struggles, we often fail to recognize the plight of others. It then becomes much more difficult to empathize with other people, and going out of our way to give someone a hand is just about the last thing on our minds, because we are really focused on putting out our own personal fires.

But what I have noticed is that even in times of tranquility, many people don’t really understand why they should help others. From a very young age, we are told that giving aid to those in need is the right thing to do, but we are seldom given any concrete reasons why it is the right thing to do. It is quite obvious that when we help someone, they benefit from our assistance. But this explanation fails to address a very human sentiment: “What’s in it for me?” That’s precisely what this article is about, because many people haven’t really internalized why they should help others and haven’t quite grasped the many benefits it would bring to both themselves and to the world.

So the question I’d like to answer today is, why is helping other people a good thing? Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, how does it benefit you? Believe it or not, many people are unaware of how they may profit from assisting others. So in today’s blog entry I will explain why helping others can be a huge boon to us, by giving clear and practical reasons.

Before I do that, however, let me share with you a quote from a book I recently re-read, which really inspired me. Rather than paraphrasing, I’ll repeat the words of the philosopher Seneca himself, from a passage in Letters from a Stoic:

“All mankind are stretching out their hands to you on every side. Lives that have been ruined, lives that are on the way to ruin are appealing for some help; it is to you that they look for hope and assistance. They are begging you to extricate them from this awful vortex, to show them in their doubt and disarray the shining torch of truth.”

While it may seem obvious to some of us that we can help ourselves by helping others, it’s all too easy to get caught up in a mindset that says that we live in a dog-eat-dog world, where we must sink or swim, and where we must only look out for ourselves. And while I will admit that it is in our nature as humans to look out for ourselves first (after all, if we don’t, we risk the prospect of annihilation), we may also look out for other people, in many cases, at no harm to ourselves.

What I am saying is that oftentimes we can help others without losing anything in the process; in fact, we more often than not gain something when we help someone. There are three reasons that come to mind right away.

On a very basic level, we genuinely feel good about helping other people. That’s part of being human. We tend to feel better about ourselves when we see that someone else’s life has been improved as a result of something we did for them.

Recently, while going up the escalator in a subway station in Shanghai, I saw a woman trying to carry a very heavy bag down the stairs by herself with great difficulty. Fortunately, a man quickly came to assist her, and she thanked him profusely. I cannot imagine that the man did not feel better about himself after that. And as we well know, feeling good about oneself adds to one’s quality of life. Similarly, you will lose nothing if you decide to help a neighbor’s child with his or her homework, or carry some items for an elderly person who is unable to. In fact, you will likely feel better about yourself, since that person progressed as a result of that act of kindness you performed.

Furthermore, when you help someone, you are contributing more goodness to the world. I am not trying to make you believe in karma or trying to inject some new age spiritualism into you. What I am saying is that when you perform acts of kindness, there is a sort of goodwill that spreads as a result of those actions. How so? Because a person that you assist will no doubt enjoy the fact that they achieved a certain goal, no matter how trivial it may seem, and you will likely enjoy having helped them reach that goal. And thus, in the end, both of you walk away with a sense of accomplishment.

On a larger scale, imagine a city whose inhabitants are the victims of violent crimes or frequent acts of fraud, and where there is a general feeling of danger and distrust. They are, generally speaking, going to be less trusting of other people and are going to be more likely to move through life with fear, anxiety, and sadness. This kind of environment does not offer as many opportunities for people to feel happy about the content of their daily experience, and in turn leads to a lower quality of life.

Now, imagine a city whose inhabitants are frequently on the receiving end of acts of kindness. Imagine that these people do not have to constantly worry about their own safety, and are confident that their lives will, for the most part, be full of fruitful opportunities and satisfying social interactions. By saying this, I don’t mean to imply that any location is perfect, or that we should try to create a utopia on Earth. There will be problems no matter where one lives, and this is irrespective of one’s ethnicity, financial situation, and other such factors. Human beings are not perfect, and we are all bound to make mistakes from time to time. But why shouldn’t we do our best to contribute as much goodness as possible to the lives of our fellow human beings, especially considering that we benefit directly from it? I can’t think of a single person I know who wouldn’t prefer to live in a safer, kinder, and happier world.

One of the reasons that we have so much pain and suffering in the world is because we inflict pain and suffering upon each other. Murder, rape, assault, and other heinous crimes only add more evil to the world, and in turn destroy opportunities to create a happier, livelier, and more prosperous society. So every time you perform a good deed and assist someone in need, you are contributing to a better world in the process, and are reducing the amount of pain and suffering. And this directly benefits you.

Before we move on to the next point, let me clarify something. By helping others, I don’t mean that you should make sacrifices so great that you harm your own well-being in the process. For example, I am not saying that you should give your life savings away to a charitable organization and become penniless in the process. What I’m talking about is acts of kindness, whether of the random variety or not. I am talking about doing small, simple things for other people that don’t even require much effort on your part. These “small” deeds combined create a tremendous amount of benevolence in the world. If everyone focused on performing a few good deeds every week, how much better would the world be?

Even the most cynical person will have to admit that helping other people brings us great benefits. If nothing else, when you assist someone, they often feel obligated to return the favor at some point. While there is no guarantee that they will do something nice for you, more often than not, they feel like they must do something kind in return.

Therefore, when you help someone, they may very well return the favor to you at some point in the future. Even a stranger that you assist may become a valuable person to you in the future. There are countless examples of someone befriending a person that they helped, and vice versa.

So, this week, why not set a goal of helping one person per day? That’s seven people in seven days. Don’t worry about whether the assistance you give seems big or small, just focus on helping that person. Give your seat on the train to an elderly person. Make a little bit more food than usual for dinner and give the rest to someone else. Donate an old jacket that you don’t need any more to a charitable organization. Volunteer at an after-school program. The possibilities are endless. And one thing is for sure – as you start performing these acts of kindness, you will see your quality of life improve in a way you never thought was possible.

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