3 Science-Backed Health Benefits Of Helping Others, From An ICU Surgeon
What do you think of when you hear the term self-care? Maybe it's a long journaling session, a steamy bubble bath, or some overall "me" time. However, critical care surgeon and physician scientist Stephen Trzeciak, M.D., MPH, author of Wonder Drug, says we should flip the script: What if the best way to practice self-care is to actually serve others?
Trzeciak has done extensive research on the health benefits of being a compassionate person, and on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, he dives into all of the ways serving others can help you live a more fulfilled (and longer!) life. Below, you can find a few highlights:
"What I was taught in medical school a long time ago was to have an emotional shield," says Trzeciak. "Don't care too much. Too much compassion will burn you out." However, research shows the exact opposite: "Caring and the relationships that flow from that can be an antidote to burnout," he explains. (In fact, that's the very subject of his previous book, Compassionomics.)
Take this 2021 study, for example, which shows that nurses with high scores for compassion for others experience less burnout1. Trzeciak even tested the compassion hypothesis for himself, deciding to lean into his own relationships—with patients, with their families, with the ICU staff, and with his loved ones at home. "I decided to care more, not less. Lean in, rather than pull back, detach, and escape," he recounts. "And that was when the fog of burnout began to lift."
Better cardiovascular health.
Apparently, volunteering can enhance your cardiovascular health, too. Trzeciak references a study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, which assigned a group of adolescents to volunteer with elementary-school-aged children for two months. The result? The participants in the volunteer group had lower biomarkers of cardiovascular disease in their blood3. "Kids, of course, are not going to suffer the outcomes of cardiovascular disease at such a young age," Trzeciak shares. "But it's just another study contributing to the body of evidence that serving others could be the best medicine for yourself."
Of course, it will take more than a couple of months of volunteering to maintain those cardiovascular benefits as they grow older. "If those participants, who are all young people, don't sustain it over time, they probably wouldn't get the potential benefits from those things," says Trzeciak. Meaning, serving and caring for others isn't a one-and-done deal.
We've discussed the link between purpose and longevity quite a bit here at mbg, but let's hear it one more time for the people in the back: "There is strong evidence in scientific literature that having purpose in life is protective for early mortality," notes Trzeciak. This study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, for example, shows that people with a sense of meaning in life have better overall physical health. Another study of 6,985 adults found that life purpose was significantly associated with all-cause mortality4.
How does purpose relate to serving others, you ask? Well, according to Trzeciak, you can cultivate a sense of purpose every day by fostering a connection with others. "One of the ways to develop purpose in everyday life is to ask the right questions," he explains. For example, instead of asking, "How are you?" you might wonder, "How can I make your day a little bit better?"
"Asking questions in ways that can't be answered with a yes or no question often invites opportunities for more meaningful connection," Trzeciak explains. "You typically get something actionable, and then it's meaningful and purposeful not only for you but for the other person, too."
According to Trzeciak, serving others is the best form of self-care. Fostering real, quality connections is the cornerstone of optimal health and well-being, not only for you but for the people you surround yourself with. So go ahead and make someone smile today—it's great for your overall health.