Malisa Ali, a graduate of Stony Brook University, poses for...

Malisa Ali, a graduate of Stony Brook University, poses for a portrait near the East Meadow Public Library in East Meadow. (Dec. 22, 2011) Credit: Daniel Brennan

For Malisa Ali and fellow Stony Brook University students, their monthly "It's Peanut Butter Jelly Time" gatherings have become more than just about making sandwiches for the homeless.

Ali, 21, a senior who is president of the community service club, said she's seen a spillover psychic benefit to the helpers, with some feeling happier or coming out of their shells.

Of fellow members, who've helped make an estimated 3,000 sandwiches, she said, "We're all friends now, we de-stress there, we forget about our problems" and are reminded of others who face far more dire worries.

That sentiment is in keeping with the conclusion of a review of some 50 scientific and medical studies indicating that people who help others end up being happier and healthier, and live longer.

"Whatever challenges you are facing, you will navigate them more successfully if you stay kind," said Stephen G. Post, professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. His literature review article was posted Dec. 20 to The International Journal of Person-Centered Medicine, a print and online publication of the World Health Organization.

What's at play? Attending to others' needs while coming from a place of sincerity helps the helpers look beyond themselves, breaking the cycle of worry about their own problems, Post said. Moving away from a "negative emotional space" can reduce a person's stress, he said.

Among the studies, which focus primarily on activities of everyday people, are ones related to helping behaviors of adolescents, those 70 and older, members of Alcoholics Anonymous and those suffering from chronic pain.

The upbeat feeling that do-gooders experience has been referred to as "the glow of giving," says Duffy Spencer, a Westbury-based psychotherapist who works with those recovering from addiction. Indeed, being of service to others is one cornerstone of Alcoholics Anonymous, she says.

"Call someone else and help them," she said, which gives the caller a sense of connection, purpose and self-esteem.

Still, Post warns of too much of a good thing. People who go overboard with helping activities can suffer burnout, he said. And take care not to tie your actions to any expectation of reciprocity from the people you help.

Volunteering, which takes many forms, needn't be all-consuming. Opportunities might involve working directly with people in need, doing behind-the-scenes service or helping at occasional events, said Diana O'Neill, executive director of the Hempstead-based Long Island Volunteer Center.

Doing good might also be as basic as holding the door for someone, she said.

"Exercises in common courtesy are just as relevant and important to advancing the human condition," she said. "It's a way to tap into the psychic energy of goodness."


Share talents and skills you enjoy using. If you're not well-suited to the activity, you tend to drop away, says Stephen G. Post, a professor and director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University.

The Long Island Volunteer Center has a filtering feature to help you match skills and interests with helping opportunities. See

Some people find it more fulfilling to help as part of a group, so they can connect and celebrate, says Post. But it's also helpful to be thoughtful in everyday life situations -- like making an "I'm thinking of you" call to a friend in need, says Duffy Spencer, a psychotherapist in Westbury.

Latest Videos