It was one of those days where everything sucks.
Portland had hit freezing temperatures all week. I had to scrape ice off my windshield while trying to warm up with reheated, 3 day-old coffee. The holiday season had barely begun and already, I’d been hit with a tidal wave of work and stress.
Now in my car, I was driving and beyond pissed. Anxiety, fear, fatigue, hunger.
I’d slipped into that place where I just hate the person I was becoming more and more every minute.
At a stoplight ahead was a maroon Cadillac Deville. I slowed up behind it, waiting for the light to turn. Green means go, but the Cadillac didn’t move. I waited, gave a light honk – maybe he was looking at his phone. Nothing.
Then an elongated blast. I was seething. I poured all my frustration cathartically into the blaring of my car horn.
The Cadillac door opened and an elderly man steped out onto the icy asphalt. His face was stern.
“Oh s**t,” I said to myself and locked my doors, expecting an oncoming barrage of abuse for my tactless honking. Cars were lining up behind us as he shuffled to my driver’s side window. I cracked it an inch, just to be safe.
“Can you give me a push?” he asked. He was defeated, frustrated and fatigued. Just like me.
“Um, ya, of course.” I pulled the emergency brake and hopped out into the street. Putting my gloved hands on the back of his car, I looked back and saw the guy in the car behind me get out. So did the guy behind him. As a team, we steered the broken-down Cadillac through the intersection and into a curbside parking spot.
We all nodded to each other, guy stuff, playing it cool. The old man gave us all a wave of thanks and remarked how he had a tow truck on the way.
Back in my car, the light turned green and I drove through the intersection. I fiddled with the radio and then it hit me – I feel better. Wow. And not just a little better, like all the way better.
Instantly, my stress, fear, and dread leveled off.
It was a miracle, almost supernatural. How is that possible?
Five minutes before I hated everyone on earth. Then I pushed an old man’s Cadillac Deville thirty-five feet with three strangers and suddenly I was cured. Really?
As it turns out, the science on this phenomenon is quite robust. Social connections, like the one I had, that engage the physicality of our bodies and the empathic centers of our brains, release the reserves of a chemical called Oxytocin.
On a macro level, Oxytocin is the chemical that helps us bond with others and handle stress. It’s most famously known as the chemical released during sex, but it also helps mothers bond with their children, reduces social anxiety, relieves pain, fights depression, and even promotes generosity.
I’m not a doctor.
I’m not a therapist.
I’m not a psychologist.
But serving others and exercising your empathy muscles will make you feel better. Honestly. (tweet this)
Studies show that volunteering can boost happiness, decrease depression, relieve stress, and help you live longer.
The same is true for charitable giving. In 1989, an economist named James Andreoni theorized the Warm-Glow Giving phenomenon, concluding that people received positive emotional feelings activated by helping others. On average, people who gave away more of their money reported significantly higher levels of happiness than those who didn’t.
In 2010, more than 253 million prescriptions were written for anti-depressants in the U.S.
That’s 253 million in a nation of only 311 million people.
I’m not against anti-depressants. I think they’re important, helpful, and often times necessary. But supplementing pharmaceuticals with concrete acts of service, charity, empathy, and exercise is the sure fire way to feel better.
Want to make 2014 your best year yet?
Give your money away. Give with your time. Volunteer. Serve. Exercise the empathic centers of your brain. Not only will you start feeling better yourself, you’ll impact the lives of others at the same time.
“For it is in giving that we receive.” — St. Francis of Assisi