How helping others can benefit us all

Helping out your neighbors, a lonely acquaintance or a family of strangers in need: Small-scale aid initiatives are growing. Why is that, and how can it benefit us all? Journalist Renate van der Zee investigates this trend. 

People’s interest in getting involved in a small-scale aid initiative appears to be growing. These vary from volunteering to help a family member, helping your neigbors or even sharing-economy initiatives like lending someone tools without expecting anything in return, or pruning a hedge in exchange for a homemade apple pie. I think this new tendency to be helpful was given a boost as a result of the financial crisis in 2008. It made a lot of people realize that even though our society is very individualistisc, this doesn’t give us a reason not to help others when they need it, particularly when things aren’t going so well. The crisis reminded us how important it is not only to be focused on earning money and working on our careers, but also to invest in making good connections in our neighborhoods and developing lasting friendships.

“It’s actually very possible that the financial crisis inspired people to be more helpful,” says American psychologist and researcher Daryl van Tongeren. “In uncertain times, people have a greater need to connect with other people, and helping each other is a really nice way to feel that connection.” Among the issues that Van Tongeren has researched, one had been the ways in which people give their lives more meaning.


“We asked a group of 400 test subjects how often they helped other people or did volunteer work for a good cause,” he says. “Those who said they helped other people often were the ones who felt their lives had more meaning than the test subjects who weren’t available to help others as frequently. The difference was really striking.”

According to Van Tongeren, helping others not only gives us the feeling that we are living a meaningful live, it also had other positive psychological effects. “It reinforces our feeling of self-worth,” he says. “When we help other people, we feel better about ourselves. There is another aspect I haven’t researched yet, but we believe that helping others also makes people feel safe. If you live in an area where helping people is the norm, where people are expected to help other, people feel safer, because they have a better idea of what they can expect from others.”

  • Read more about A New Approach to Being Helpful in Issue 20.

Text Renate van der Zee Photography Shutterstock