Watoto Wote Wazuri

Kenya and the science of good deeds.

Posted in Uncategorized by Lynn Ouellette on 03/17/2012

Kristin Smiling with the Children of Nyumbani Village

When I came home from Kenya, I felt so joyous about the experience there, fulfilled and gratified too, but more than that I felt really good and happy. This second trip to Kenya had been even better than the first, I had made the committment to going every year, and I knew that I had really made a difference while I was there. I immersed myself in editing my photos, had ongoing contact with Lilian and new relationships developed in Kenya and a lot of contact with Lloydie, Jen and Deb as we planned the Tuko Pamoja party which I was thrilled to attend. All of this kept the trip alive and kept me in touch with those good feelings. I know that my fellow volunteers feel this too, this joyful sense of celebration to be able to help people–it’s really unique. So I started to ask myself why does this make you feel so good? I am a psychiatrist after all, and I felt curious about the strength of my own reaction  and of those around me. We have many pictures of us smiling broadly in Kenya while doing the work there, but it wasn’t just for the camera, we are truly happy and feeling good every day in Kenya.

Lloydie with the Kenyan Ambassador's wife at Nyumbani Children's home

Sitting in the Maasai manyatta, against the cow dung walls in 100 degree heat and totally happy

So I started to do a little research on this issue of volunteering and altruism and how it makes you feel and came upon a lot of information. It turns out that it is fairly recently the subject of study, but there has been quite a bit of work done. When we do good deeds, volunteer, behave in an altruistic way,  it reduces our stress level and that can be seen on a physiologic, biochemical and cellular level. The term “helper’s high” has even been coined to describe the euphoric feelings that one gets. Oxytocin, the boding chemical that helps mother’s bond with and nurture their new babies, is released when you are helping others and its calming and stress relieving. In addition, the “feel good” chemicals of the brain like endorphins and dopamine involved with reward circuitry of the brain are also triggered by altruistic behavior. However, this isn’t only a stress reliever in the moment and a transient good feeling, numerous studies have now shown that people who engage in regular altruistic behavior such as volunteer work have less illness and live longer lives. One study of older adults done at Cornell found that in older adults, those who volunteered regularly had a marked reduction in early death that was a stronger effect than exercising 4 times a week.

So why am I writing about this here? I,  of course,  would like to get other people involved with coming to Kenya. There is a great need there. But I also wanted to share this experience of feeling good and how it can be derived from being a volunteer or helper because I feel like I am so lucky to have come upon this work in Kenya that allows me to make a difference for people are in need and yet to still feel like I am the one to whom something is being given. Kenya has taught me first hand my most powerful  lesson of the “science of good deeds” and I wanted to share what I have learned.  But I know it isn’t only in Kenya where this could happen and I hope that others who haven’t yet had as full an experience of the “helper’s high” as I have had might give it a try wherever it suits you. There is a lot of need for helping in the world and feeling good, relieving stress,  perhaps living longer, these are just a few of the rewards.

Lloydie and Kristen, before leaving to the go to the Lea Toto sites

Deb with a child at the Children's Home

One Response

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  1. Judy said, on 03/17/2012 at 8:24 pm

    Lynn, this is beautiful beyond words!


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