December 8, 2022

How Helping Others Helps You

Show Notes

On this episode, Chuck Gaidica is joined by Dr. Amy McKenzie, VP of Clinical Partnerships & Associate CMO for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Together, they discuss how helping others can be beneficial to our health.

In this episode of A Healthier Michigan Podcast, we explore:

  • The meaning of altruism and it’s link to mental health
  • The health benefits of helping others
  • Why helping others makes us happy
  • Ways we can help others

Transcript

Chuck Gaidica:
This is A Healthier Michigan podcast, episode 120. Coming up, we discuss how simple acts of kindness can be beneficial to our health.
Welcome to A Healthier Michigan podcast. It’s a podcast dedicated to navigating how we can improve our health and wellbeing through small, healthy habits we can start implementing right now. I’m your host, Chuck Gaidica, and every other week we sit down with a certified expert and we discuss a myriad of topics that cover nutrition, fitness, and a whole lot more. And on this episode, we’re taking a deep dive into how helping others can be good for our health, maybe not just theirs. With us today is Vice President of Clinical Partnerships and Associate CMO for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Dr. Amy McKenzie. Good to see you.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
Good morning, Chuck. It’s great to be here.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah, nice to have you with us. So you’ve got so much rich experience in family medicine and clinical leadership and just as a human being, it’s not just this time of the year that we’re coming into, but we often think about it maybe more, somehow some way we want to help other people. So we’ve heard this phrase, it’s better to give than receive. Is there something clinical we can attach to that notion as well?

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
Yeah, absolutely. There’s actually a fair bit of research out there about giving and helping others. And the term is really altruism and it’s about putting someone else’s needs above your own or acting in an unselfish way to help somebody else, and it really is around the motivation. That piece is key. You can’t feel obligated to do it, you really want to be motivated to help others, but there’s a lot of health benefits and mental health benefits associated with that.

Chuck Gaidica:
So let’s talk about that a minute because that’s the big word, altruism, right? I’m going to be altruistic. In my normal language with my pals over coffee or something., I don’t say, hey, let’s go out and be altruistic today. But that’s really from a clinical research standpoint, that’s the word. So when we want to be giving, is that something that’s going to help, not only the other person, but what physically will happen to us if we give of our time, talent, or treasure, whatever it is.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
Yeah. So the studies are very clear that you get a lot of benefits. Not only does it help improve your self-esteem in the way you feel right after the immediate act of doing something for somebody else, you actually get a release of endorphins. And what those are, are those are hormones, chemicals in your body that help you to feel good. They go by the names of dopamine and serotonin and oxytocin, and that’s not necessarily really important, the important part is that you get this feeling of almost like what people call a runner’s high, this is actually what people call a helper’s high. And so that’s the immediate impact after you are helping or serving another. But there are also longer term benefits and health benefits around this as well.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, we’ve done a few episodes in the past, what, we’re up to 120 now, where we’ve talked about the cuddle hormone. If you touch someone or we’ve come through this season where, holy cow, we had to socially distance, Doc, we had to stay away from people. But this, what you’re talking about, you may release similar hormones or the same ones not even touching someone, simply getting down on bended knee to help somebody is going to do that, right?

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
Absolutely. And it creates bonds between people, that oxytocin is a really strong and powerful thing that creates bonds between people, so they oftentimes are wanting to reciprocate. So when you say it’s better to give them receive, oftentimes it pays back in dividends to you later, not only for your own health, but people want to help you out as well.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. Is there anything else that you can put your finger on from a physical standpoint that we should be aware of? Because I want to double back to mental health as well here.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
So in terms of physical health, things that we can see are lower blood pressure, like I said, improved self-esteem, less stress levels. And there actually were some studies out there that this actually can contribute to longer life. There was actually a study that looked at people who were over the age of 55 who were participating in volunteering with two or more organizations and found that 44% of them were less likely to die over a five year time period when you controlled for other factors. So it’s pretty significant when you look at that way, that just helping others can help you to extend your life and live longer.

Chuck Gaidica:
So it’s not just getting a discount on my McDonald’s coffee when I’m over 55.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
That’s right.

Chuck Gaidica:
And this idea of extending your life. We’ve got so much that comes at us from different directions, and I think I’m more in tune with this because it’s kind of the journey I’ve been on in my life where we try to find purpose and passion. And when you find people that do that, for me, I look at them and think, wow, that is so cool that somebody has found something, they’re working at Salvation Army, they’re doing so and their time just evaporates and they don’t even know that they’re working hard at helping other people. And yet we all individually can find the thing or the couple things that can give us all these benefits, which is so cool to think about.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
Yeah, absolutely. And I mean when you volunteer in those ways, it contributes. We talked a little bit about physical health, but I also mentioned lower stress and we see things like less depression. And when you wonder, why is that, I think it’s because it really creates this sense of community and belonging for people. It can decrease isolation, you have a group usually that you’re participating with.
It also can help with your own perspective. Oftentimes we feel too busy, we don’t have time to help out, but it’s actually the reverse is true that when you give, it actually gives you a better perspective on your life, it helps you to put things in their proper context and proper place and just helps you to kind of mentally reset.

Chuck Gaidica:
It’s funny, I talked to a guy once and he had to be maybe early eighties. He was a Korean War veteran, or is, I don’t know him personally. But I was talking to him about the job that he had, which was basically a volunteer job of Meals on Wheels. He was driving around the city, Metro Area, giving other seniors, some his exact age, some Korean War vets, a meal. A lunch, dinner, whatever it was.
And I said to him, what do you get out of this? What’s the greatest reward? He said, the greatest reward isn’t just pulling up and ding dong and here’s your food. He said, I get to talk to them at the door. And he said, and the funny way I get to of look over their shoulder and I say, is everything all right today? Is everything all right with mom, making sure nobody’s fallen? All this stuff that had nothing to do with delivering a meal is what gave him great joy. And he would walk away and say, if I just thought I was a driver and if I were just driving around delivering meals, not to demean it, because some people make a living with DoorDash or something. He said, if it weren’t more to me than that of really connecting, I don’t know that this would be as impactful. So isn’t it funny how sometimes you go into a volunteer position thinking one thing and the thing that resonates highly on your list in the case of this gentleman is something completely different?

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
Yeah, a hundred percent. And I think a lot of times what I’ve heard from people that volunteer is they go in thinking, I’m going to go in and help and you are helping. But oftentimes you get more back out of that than what you’ve even given. And that I think it goes to show the impact of that kind of human bond that we all have, and I think we’ve really come to realize through the pandemic when we couldn’t get together and do these types of things, how important it is to our own health.

Chuck Gaidica:
So let’s take altruism and kind of focus it now toward mental health. So you’ve talked about less anxiety, maybe you can even see in real time your blood pressure or your pulse come down, kind of like a breathing exercise. You’re doing something good. Focus a minute on this mental health component.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
So on the mental health component, I think a lot of times people can feel in their daily work, or just in life, isolated and they’re not getting that connection. And really when you are stepping into these spaces and helping others, it helps you to feel better about yourself and about what you’re doing, and so we see increases in self-esteem. And then we also can see improvements in things like less frequent depression or less frequent anxiety, which you just spoke of as well. And again, that’s part of that good hormone release, those good endorphins that we like to have around, but then also it has a lasting impact. Again, by creating that perspective, by helping us build community, there’s been studies showing that altruism is something I think we can often think about that we do within our families, and we think about the bond that creates for us within families, this also creates bond within communities as well.

Chuck Gaidica:
And that bond within families, it’s interesting you say that because I know some families, they’ll practice that idea of giving together because they really do want to inspire the next generation and the next generation, bring the grandkids with me to do something. I remember there was a young man named, his nickname was Super Euan, his name is Euan, and he was fearless and he wore this little cape and he got a logo that looks like the Superman logo, and he would go out and distribute sandwiches to homeless people in Detroit.
And I just asked him, I said, where does this fearlessness come from that you have? He said, it’s just inside me and I just love going up… And I mean, this is a little kid who I’m not sure is taller than me, but it’s really interesting how that can be something that is inside us maybe from the beginning. And yet I’ve also met people where they can learn that because they’re sort of tentative or I’m not sure if I’m wired to do that, but we all can if we just jump in the deep end of the pool maybe.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
Yeah, I do think that there is an innate component of this. We feel that when we see others and they need help, and you see this oftentimes in children, I think what happens, the learned part is when we get so busy and we become very self-focused or focused on our own life and all the things that we have to do. But I do think absolutely, that teaching this and modeling this with your children is critically important as well. I know families that go out and volunteer, and I think that that can really help set a great example for kids going forward and how to be part of a community and help step out and help others, and also build that in for yourself, because we know all the self benefits of that.

Chuck Gaidica:
Sometimes, and I think it may be connected to self-esteem, sometimes I think we think of being grateful when somebody does something for us. And yet, I was walking around this morning, or I should just be honest, the dog was taking me for a walk, and I’m out there this morning just before we get together, and I’m thinking to myself, do I practice enough gratefulness for when I’m able to help somebody? Because indeed I’m giving one of two things, well, one of three things. It could be treasure, I could write a check and that’s a way of giving. But oftentimes for me, I have to decide, is it my time or is it my treasure? And so we only have so much capacity, elbow room in life, to give.
And I think when you give those things, they tend to take you to a place where you can become grateful that, wow, I had a little extra time. And it’s not about being a senior or 55 plus, it’s anybody. But you’ve got a little extra time and you gave it away. That’s a huge thing to really ponder and be grateful that you’ve got the time and you’ve got the muscle or whatever it is to give to somebody.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
Absolutely. You’re absolutely right. And I think there’s so many ways that we can do this. We oftentimes think, oh, well, I need to go carve out a period of time to go to the soup kitchen to do this. But there’s so many small things that we can do through our daily life. Checking on an elderly neighbor, letting somebody’s dog out during the day, or watching their kid or making somebody a meal when they’re in the hospital. There just are lots of ways that you can interact and be able to do this and fit it in regardless of how busy your schedule is and how much time you have.

Chuck Gaidica:
So back to mental health connections and the idea of lower anxiety, et cetera. Anything else there that you want to focus on for us as we look at it?

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
Yeah, I think when you look at this, when you think about all of the mental health issues that we are seeing today, through the pandemic, and I will say we’ve just seen the numbers significantly increase coming out of the pandemic. And so we’re talking routinely about different ways that people can improve their mental health. And some of them are staying active, eating healthy, making sure you’re building in self care, all of those types of things. But I think this is another really important component of ways that people can benefit themselves mentally by connecting in with the community and helping others.

Chuck Gaidica:
And you talked about this idea of self-esteem and there’s a book that was written, and it’s actually the byline of the book that I find resonates with a lot of people. It’s called Halftime, meaning your second half of life. So the tendency is to think this is only for retired people, but it’s the byline, Halftime, Moving Your Life from Success to Significance. And I think when we help other people, we tend to either think about it or maybe it comes to us later that we are actually being more significant, that maybe that thing that we’re doing is actually the most significant thing I can do in my day and, wow, and how it impacted somebody or somebody’s lives. For me, that byline is something I focus on a lot in my life. Whatever success is, you don’t have to be retired yet, but moving towards significance in life does make you feel good.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
You’re a hundred percent right. There’s a lot of work done around finding your purpose, which is your significance in life and how that grounds people and connects people and keeps them more happy in their daily life and in their daily walk and in everything that they’re doing. So it combats depression and it definitely improves mental health when you are able to feel like you’re contributing, finding your purpose, finding that connection to life and being able to make an impact and feeling like that is significant.

Chuck Gaidica:
For those of us that sometimes have trouble getting to the edge of the pool or just taking the step to volunteer or to help others. What would you suggest are good ways to actually get in a groove to actually start? Because if you don’t start something, you can’t begin.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
Yeah, a hundred percent. So I think about it as taking a small step before you try to take a big step. It might be intimidating to think about signing up and going to a food kitchen, it’s something that’s very unfamiliar. But looking around at needs that are just within your community. Maybe a mom is struggling to deal with transportation for her child, and maybe you can help out there. As I mentioned, maybe there’s an elderly neighbor that could use some help picking up groceries or something along those lines where you can start local in your community with individuals that you know.
I know some people that like to go through in the morning, they’re getting their morning coffee, maybe you’re just paying for the person behind you. That can sometimes make people smile and just make their day. And what studies have also found is that when people are recipients of that, they oftentimes then are reaching out and doing it for someone else. So it’s a gift that grows as well.

Chuck Gaidica:
And then there’s the other part that’s not as overt, because I’ve seen the studies, I bet you have too, where this blew my mind because all of our kids, I’m pretty sure all millennials, that millennials and baby boomers researched the same way, loneliness registers extraordinarily high in both of those groups, which you wouldn’t think young people would feel the same.
And I have found sometimes the idea of giving of my time doesn’t have to be backbreaking stuff. It could be I’m just sitting with somebody and listening. I don’t even have to have answers. Don’t be afraid that you can’t answer. What do I say, I don’t know what to say. Well, you don’t have to know what to say. Sometimes, especially in the season we’ve come out of, people just need someone to talk to.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
Absolutely. And again, it get back to that human connectedness and how important it is. But just even lending an ear, like you mentioned, could be your first step. So it’s really about how we are participating in the lives of others and putting their needs ahead of ours. And it gets back to that whole motivation piece and finding that purpose, and that could be different for different people. For some people they volunteer with a cause that is very important for them. Whatever it is that connects you in finding that significance, that’s important.

Chuck Gaidica:
And then there’s the other side. So we’re talking about the quieter side, and then we just had a special episode with Tony Michaels, the president of The Parade Company. Then there’s the part that I always kind of find fun to insert in my life where you can volunteer and you can be surrounded by other people who are putting on a costume, or you are packing meals and everybody’s wearing a Santa hat and there’s music. You know what I mean? There’s the fun factor, which I think is another easy on ramp to getting involved because all of a sudden you’re looking around, you’re thinking, wow, everybody’s having so much fun doing this thing for free, I think I’ll have fun too. So there is some of that to be said that, the comradery of the fun can also get you involved.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
Absolutely. And as we get near the holidays, there’s more opportunities out there to be able to seek some of those things out and give of your time.

Chuck Gaidica:
Anything else you want to really hit on here that will be encouraging to all of us? Because there’s so much you’ve said that is already.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
Yeah, I think just taking that first step, realizing that you can make an impact in the lives of others, but that’s going to give back tenfold to you in the importance of that in your overall health and wellbeing. But then also in the communities that we’re all a part of. It’s just really an important topic.

Chuck Gaidica:
And we kind of started off by saying that this could be a way to have simple act of kindness. So you can start withs the simple, and maybe as we move into the new year, it’s a good New Year’s resolution to find new ways to give back. And once you get a taste of it’s sometimes easy to keep going back for more, to keep going back to help.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
It is, it becomes a self-fulfilling kind of thing. So once you get a taste of it, I think people tend to crave more and that’s where you see you’re all of a sudden volunteering and the whole day is gone and you didn’t know where the time went because people can get very engaged, because it feels good. It feels good to be connected and give back.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. Well, like you, I’m sure we’ve seen people in our lives who are heroes to us. They’ve been quiet or they’ve done something so big it’s astounding to even think about, it became a success to help other people. But no matter where you are on that continuum, it’s always encouraging to hear from others that there’s a good reason, especially for this season, that we get involved and help others.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
Absolutely.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, Dr. Amy McKenzie, good to see you. Thanks for your encouragement and your help this day with this information.

Dr. Amy McKenzie:
Yep. Thank you.

Chuck Gaidica:
Dr. Amy McKenzie, who’s been with us. She’s the Vice President of Clinical Partnerships and Associates, CMO for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. We want to thank you too, thanks for listening to A Healthier Michigan. It’s a podcast that’s brought to you by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
If you like the show you want to know more, you can jump online. Go online to ahealthiermichigan.org/podcast. You can leave us a review or a rating, ideas. You can also get us at Apple Podcast or Spotify. You can follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and you can get new episodes, old episodes to take with you on your power walks here as we get into our colder weather seasons. Be sure to subscribe to us an Apple podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. I’m Chuck Gaidica. Thanks in advance for giving back to somebody you may not even know. Take good care.