IS HELPING THE NEW YOGA?

April 08, 2020
IS HELPING THE NEW YOGA?

In two or three decades, yoga went from a wellness niche to an AU$100b global industry. There’s a studio on every corner. You can buy an organic yoga mat at the grocery store. There are too many yoga routines on YouTube to get through in one lifetime.

Frankly, this should make you feel hopeful about the world we live in. Sure, yoga can be cliquey and pretentious. Sure, it’s a gigantic profit machine. But communities, families, and individuals have not exactly been weakened by yoga’s entry into the mainstream.

In fact, there’s a every indication that yoga is good for society. The average Australian spends over 7 hours per day looking at a screen, and 10 hours per day sitting in a chair. Meanwhile, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has charted rising levels of anxiety. What could be better than stretching out, breathing deep, letting it all melt away? Helping, perhaps.

New and old ways to find happiness

In the shifting landscape of wellness trends, consciously helping others might be the next big thing. It’s not as if this is a new concept, but neither was yoga when its popularity exploded. The difference is how we understand the benefits. Yoga enthusiasts have been shouting from the rooftops for a long time, but their case became exponentially stronger when science chimed in.

For instance, we now know that doing yoga can reduce levels of Cortisol, a stress-related brain chemical. We have evidence that yoga lowers blood pressure, improves heart health, reduces chronic pain, and promotes better sleep. With each successive study, it becomes more sensible to practice yoga strictly for health reasons.

But what about helping? Is there a scientific explanation for the good vibes we feel when we give time to a worthy cause, or do something to help a friend in need?

### Increasingly, yes.

Let’s take volunteering, as an example. A study by Carnegie Mellon University found that adults who volunteer are less likely to experience hypertension. This is particularly true in older adults. As opportunities for social reactions decrease in retirement, volunteering produces important physiological reactions that prevent physical and emotional decline.

Another academic study (this one appearing in The Palgrave Handbook of Volunteering, Civic Participation, and Nonprofit Associations) studied biomarkers in groups of people who volunteered as opposed to groups who did not. Those who volunteered experienced lower levels of anxiety and depression, and better longevity, than their non-volunteering counterparts.

To be fair, the Palgrave study looked a wide range of factors, including hormones, genetic factors, and cognition. It found that healthier people tend to volunteer more, which blurs the line of causation.

But we can dive further into the data if we must. A UK study looked at 600 volunteers and found that nearly two-thirds experienced lower levels of depression as a result of volunteering. Interestingly, nearly a third of respondents said they had taken less time off work as a result of volunteering. Combine this with the fact that paid volunteer leave has become a point of focus for Australian companies, and you have evidence that volunteering is anything but snake oil.

A global phenomenon?

While volunteering is just one example of the ways we help others, it’s an excellent focal point for the benefits of consciously working to make a difference. And there’s science behind it to demonstrate its powerful effect on both the givers of help, and those who receive it.

Often in the volunteering scenario, there is no direct personal relationship with those the volunteers work to help, yet the impact and benefits of this are clear. The power of this can only be infinitely amplified when helping those you care about and have a personal connection to.

There might never be helping accessories, or competitive cliques of helpers, but the value of helping, of giving our time in support of a community, social cause or someone we care about, is clear. It’s a deep and rudimentary value that gets created deep inside our brains. It happens when we give to a cause we care about, or when we help a friend in need.

In 2017, the United Nations calculated the global value of volunteer work to be $A1.9 trillion. As the science of helping gets out into the world, expect that number to increase. If this isn’t a good reason to feel hopeful about the state of the world, what is?