The Surprising Way Self-Care and Service are Linked

Learn about how living a life of service can have phyical and mental health benefits.

Imagine you’re at the doctor’s office, crinkly paper wrinkling under the bare thighs you can’t quite cover with the hospital gown. Your physical exam is over, and this is the rare instance where your doctor is utterly unrushed, able to dialogue with you not just about managing acute symptoms but also about how to really flourish in this body you’ve been given. You talk nutrition and movement and all the other little habits that add up to good stewardship of your health.

Then she asks about your life of service — how much of your day do you spend serving others?

You might pause, a little confused about why this is coming up in a physical. So she explains: studies repeatedly show that living lives of giving has enormous, measurable benefits for our health. She highlights some of the evidence and writes you a prescription: spend (on average) sixteen minutes in service each day to bolster your physical, emotional, and even professional wellness.

This is what Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli do in Wonder Drug: 7 Scientifically Proven Ways That Serving Others Is the Best Medicine for Yourself. Both authors are medical doctors who have intentionally used compassion and connection to combat the burnout rampant in medical professions. What’s more, they have gathered up evidence — real, hard science — that shows that serving others is a key to living a long, healthy life.

In the first part of their book, Steve and Mazz “diagnose” our culture. They point out that the hyper-individualism in which we all swim is literally making us sick. The drive to get ahead means getting ahead of someone else, so our professional lives are rampant with competition rather than cooperation.

Even more, many practices promoted as “self-care” are solitary ones, and we are often encouraged to maximize escapist “me time” in order to increase our wellness. Unfortunately, this is possibly pulling us even further into self-absorption and away from the relationships that build real resilience.

So our authors move on to proposing a “cure,” presenting stacks on stacks of studies whose overwhelming evidence points to altruism being linked to better health. They appeal not to any sentimental ideas here but rely on the science to show very real benefits.

After all, most of us know the idea of serving others is a nice one. It has value. We’ll get around to it someday. But Steve and Mazz insist that the reasons for doing this are not just sentimental. We should serve others not just because it feels nice or seems sweet. It’s also literally good for us, and we should make it a priority not just on moral grounds but on medical ones. There is rigorous scientific evidence that forms, as they call it, “an unmistakable tidal wave of data.”

Serving others triggers real chemical changes in our bodies; the hormones and neurotransmitters that are released by connecting to others boost our mood and even protect us from illness. Lives of service are associated with reduced stress and inflammation, enabling our bodies’ systems to function and heal like they should. Altruism reduces pain, makes our hearts healthier, and makes us stronger. It protects against anxiety, depression, and burnout. It can even contribute to professional success.

So we’re left totally convinced that service is good for others and for ourselves. What do we do now? Fortunately, Steve and Mazz have us covered. The last section of their book is a “prescription,” seven specific actionable steps that each of us can take to start reaping the benefits of their research.

Best of all, we can start small — just sixteen minutes a day, or a couple of hours a week, brings about all these benefits. We can start by looking for opportunities that may be hiding right in front of us. We can start by serving the people closest to us, the people we live and work with.

We don’t have to commit to a “year of service” or dig up hours of non-existent free time to become giving people. Steve cured his own burnout by treating the patients he was already seeing with a little more kindness and connection. Like him, we can fold service into the context of our real lives as they are.

Steve and Mazz point out that there is a tendency for people to become more altruistic as they get older, after they have accomplished their personal goals. But there’s no reason to wait; cultivating generosity earlier in our lives lets us enjoy the benefits to others and ourselves sooner and more profoundly.

Reading Wonder Drug left me energized and excited to seek out opportunities for service in the context of my own real life. It was like a motivating conversation with not one but two doctors who care about my flourishing at all levels and who drew on both their medical expertise and their personal experience to give advice that can improve health and happiness.

Without the crinkly paper.

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