The Medical Minute: Doing for others lifts your mood — and improves your health

Lori Delbo, left, and Angela Comis, both of Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, help clean the kitchen of a residential apartment of the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg during the 2019 United Way Day of Caring. (NOTE: This photo was taken prior to enactment of safety protocols related to COVID-19.) Credit: Penn State Health. All Rights Reserved.

In the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Angel Schuster kept herself mostly isolated from friends and family. Although the situation has improved, the continued spread of COVID-19 means her long shifts as a pediatric emergency physician for Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center are often the closest she gets to a major outing.

That started to change when, as the department’s vice chair for diversity, equity and inclusion, she decided to coordinate a community health fair for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national day of service celebrated on the third Monday in January each year. Planning for a community-building event turned out to be the perfect release.

“One of the many reasons why community involvement is part of our mission is because we know that when you are doing for others it really lifts your mood,” Schuster said. “As a physician, when I have a chance to participate in something like a health fair, it helps me remember that I’m here to take care of people and make their lives better when I can. It is one of the things that I find very uplifting.”

Those good feelings you get from helping others are universal no matter what your occupation, says Brooke Hertzler, a clinical psych specialist and licensed clinical social worker with Penn State Health Behavioral Health Services at Holy Spirit Medical Center. And, they are good for your body, too.

“Biologically, giving or doing an act of service can positively activate chemicals in our brain that release positive hormones,” Hertzler said.

Studies show serving others is linked to increasing serotonin in the brain, a key hormone that stabilizes mood provides feelings of well-being and happiness, she said.

“It also can activate a dopamine neurotransmitter, which helps us feel pleasure and satisfaction. In addition, that same act of service or kindness releases oxytocin, a hormone often linked to empathy and trust,” Hertzler said.

She believes so strongly in these positive effects that she often encourages her patients to volunteer or find a way to take time out of their day to help others.

“It is something we talk about frequently. I try to find out what they like to do, what their strengths are and how they can use those strengths to help others,” she said.

A big part of reaping the rewards is taking the time to reflect on how serving others makes you feel. Ninety-nine percent of Hertzler’s patients say it uplifted them and helped their mood.

“Sometimes doing the act of kindness can be an awakening as well that allows you to reflect and tune into the things in your life that you are grateful for,” she said. “I believe that the positivity of doing acts of service or kindness promotes a positive energy in the world that is much needed right now.”

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