Helping Others to Help Yourself Live Longer

Jane Biehl, Ph.D.

An astounding recent study just emerged at the Ohio State University, and more research on this topic is certain to follow. The authors determined that people who go to church (any church or temple) and/or volunteer tend to live up to four to six years longer.

The article offers the caveat that marital status and other factors such as gender and not smoking or drinking in excess are also factors in living longer. But the volunteering was very important. I pondered this I realized almost every single religion ranging from Far East religions, to Catholicism, to Protestantism to Judaism preach doing for other people. Volunteers at these churches and temples do an astounding number of services such as running soup kitchens, providing for backpack programs, donating clothing and stocking food cupboards. These church and temple congregations often become family, and people who are members visit each other in the hospital and nursing homes, send cards and bring food when one is ill.

Certainly, one doesn’t have to belong to a certain church or adhere to a specific faith to help others, and I know many people who don’t attend church and do fantastic works. But for me personally, belonging to a church reminds me to do for others; some people don’t want or need that reminder.

The article repeatedly emphasizes the joy one receives from helping others. We all do this in our work, whether we are teaching, nursing, building houses or doing factory work making parts. What we do at work helps others live a better life.

Many of my readers know how strongly I feel about not being able to conquer cancer alone. I know it takes a village. I personally volunteered for many years, including a stint of weekly visits, to residents of a group home who were both legally blind and profoundly deaf. Those years were among the best of my life. Unfortunately, I stopped for several years when I was working two or three jobs and getting my doctorate. My jobs were not enough to make me happy, and I was miserable.

One essential form of volunteer work is taking care of children, relatives and aging parents. We dare not overlook this important volunteer work – it’s perhaps the most important work we will ever do. I was busy with taking care of aging parents for several years.

After they were gone, I became very involved in a church that prides itself in mission work, and knew I had found the right home. I can’t do some of the services such as visit hospitals and nursing homes because of my staggering low blood counts which make me very susceptible to infections. But I can purchase items for backpacks, be on church council, be a lay reader and send cards. I also have been the recipient of the love of these wonderful people. We had a terrible humid warm spell recently, and I was feeling miserable even with the air conditioning because of the chemo I am on. So, two wonderful men from my church installed a ceiling fan in my bedroom, which made a huge difference for me. I will be eternally grateful, and they did it with joy.

I have a wonderful service dog, and attempt to conduct programs and awareness of what these dogs can do. I also collect items for the agency I received her from. Through my gentle and wonderful companion, I have met great people who foster and spend countless hours preparing the dogs to serve people with various disabilities. All of the dogs in Circle Tail’s wonderful program are trained in two women’s prisons. There are many testimonies from these inmates (we call them handlers) who feel for the first time that they are making a difference for someone else. Even people who are incarcerated can give back!

After we have been diagnosed with cancer, our lives will never be the same again. But we need to try to just perform one little service – a phone call, a card, an email to encourage others. The wonderful thing is with or without cancer, we may just live a little bit longer with joy!

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