The Greek philosopher Aristotle once surmised that the essence of life is “to serve others and do good.” If recent research is any indication, serving others might also be the essence of good health.
Our Guru emphasized service to others as integral to spiritual life. Each day, he told us he never missed his energization exercises, his meditations, and his service to others. He asked us to do the same.
Another thing the Master stressed over and over was that science and religion should work hand in hand. What has science discovered about service? It turns out that this topic has been studied for over fifty years by different groups of researchers, so there is abundant data regarding its benefits.
All of us know intuitively that volunteering brings many of the benefits that we give to others right back to us—like a boomerang! We feel these benefits in our hearts and we know that getting out of ourselves and giving to others is somehow good for us. But what exactly are these benefits and how can they be quantified?
Benefits of Service
Have you ever had the feeling that when you work at a charity event or give your time to a favorite cause, you often get more out of it than you give? Science, it turns out, can help us understand why we feel this way.
You may be surprised to learn that volunteering has positive implications that go beyond mental health. A growing body of evidence suggests that people who give their time to others might also be rewarded with better physical health as well—including lower blood pressure and a longer lifespan.
From lowering stress to boosting self-confidence, research shows that volunteering offers substantial benefits such as:
- Decreased risk of depression, especially for individuals 65 and older. Volunteering increases social interaction and helps build a support system based on common interests—both of which have been shown to decrease depression.
- Providing a sense of purpose and teaching valuable skills.
- Helping people stay physically and mentally active. Volunteer activities get you moving and thinking at the same time. One study found that generally volunteers report better physical health than do non-volunteers. Older volunteers experience greater increases in life satisfaction and greater positive changes in their perceived health as a result of volunteering.
- Reducing stress levels. Volunteering may enhance a person’s social networks to buffer stress and reduce the risk of disease. By savoring time spent in service to others you will feel a sense of meaning and appreciation, both given and received, which can have a stress-reducing effect.
- Making our hearts healthier. According to a Carnegie Mellon University study, volunteers over age 50 were at decreased risk for developing high blood pressure.
Ordinary Service Versus Selfless Service: The Motive Matters
All of us share a strong sense of purpose when serving—our duty to our blessed Guru and the desire to please Him. But what exactly is “selfless” service? Attention is needed to prevent the ego from having its way!
Science has discovered that to derive health benefits, you have to serve for the right reasons — long after the many saints through the ages encouraged acts of selfless service as an essential aspect of devotion to the Divine.
Research has shown volunteers’ motives matter. Volunteers reported more mental and physical benefits than people who didn’t volunteer when they reported altruistic values as the main reason for wanting to volunteer.
On the other hand, people who said they volunteered for their own personal satisfaction had the same outcomes four years later as people who did not volunteer at all, according to the study.
While meditating one morning after I had been thinking about this article, I caught myself letting my ego get in my way: “How will the editors like my writing? Will I be invited to write again? Will people I know read my blog? ” Suddenly, Master gave me the insight as I sat there on my meditation seat, that this isn’t exactly what he meant by “selfless”!
Please join us in this unique and wonderful opportunity to do something positive for devotees here and around the world. We invite you to sign up on the Yogananda Seva Volunteer portal and contribute your skills and experience toward one of the many projects developed to support SRF/YSS and Master’s spiritual family: volunteer.yoganandaseva.org.
 (Sneed, R. S., & Cohen, S. (2013). A prospective study of volunteerism and hypertension risk in older adults. Psychology and Aging, 28(2), 578–586.)