- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Palisades resident Kimberly Chester and her 14-year-old dog, Zoe, are regulars at the Northwest Health Care Center on Wisconsin Avenue. The duo cheer up the center's seniors each week, but Mrs. Chester also benefits from the visits. She says she gets as much as the people she helps, if not more.
"When you're there, there are no phones ringing that you have to answer," says Mrs. Chester, who has spent the past 18 years working with People Animals Love (PAL), a group that matches pets with the elderly, infirm and disadvantaged to brighten their spirits.
Mrs. Chester, 52, says she isn't alone in feeling that way. In fact, performing good deeds isn't simply an act of charity; some experts say it's a way to improve our health.
Dr. Larry Dossey, a physician and author who has studied altruism and health, called the sensation felt while doing charitable deeds the "helper's high" in his 1991 book "Meaning and Medicine."
The Santa Fe, N.M.-based doctor reports that the body releases opiates during altruistic acts, similar to what joggers refer to as the source of a "runner's high."
"These are more than just thoughts and feelings that stay in your head," Dr. Dossey says of acts of kindness. "They initiate a cascade of biochemical changes."
Endorphins, which help regulate pain, can be released during charitable acts to combat the release of hormones such as adrenaline released during stressful stretches.
Writing a check for a worthy nonprofit just won't cut it, though.
"You've got to get your hands dirty, like working in a soup kitchen," Dr. Dossey says. Human interaction is a key element in feeling the sensation. "It has to be up close with an intimate sense of involvement and commitment."
Not all doctors are convinced of altruism's health implications, Dr. Dossey says, and research on the topic is scarce.
He compares the connection to that between spirituality and medicine; studies have shown that those of strong faith live longer than nonbelievers.
"The emerging data shows spiritual practices really have tangible benefits for people's health," he says.

Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, says high stress levels can lead to a variety of disorders.
Stress "evokes a fight-or-flight response," says Dr. Benson, making people more susceptible to such conditions as anxiety, mild and moderate depression, hypertension and cardiac irregularities.
Other consequences of stress include problematic sexual performance along with a decreased sperm count, plus an increase in "hot flashes" in menopausal women.
The body, however, has within it an opposition response to that instinct, which Dr. Benson calls the "relaxation response." His April 2003 book, "The Breakout Principle," will explore that subject.
The response requires several steps to elicit it, such as the repetition of a word or prayer, as in meditation, or a session of yoga class.
"People have been doing this for years, often through a prayer," he says.
"All of this helps explain why altruism can work," he continues. "The essence of the relaxation response is to break the train of everyday thought."
Whether it is painting a senior citizen's home or serving a nutritious meal to someone in need, "they all get you to forget your own worries. It allows the body to revert to its healing properties," Dr. Benson says.
To benefit from the relaxation response, he says, requires daily practice. He doesn't mean a trip to the local soup kitchen each morning, but a variety of stress-relieving endeavors that combine to make us healthier.

Alexandria resident Don Templeman, 69, busies himself with an array of volunteer projects, including working at the Ramsay House Visitors Center in Old Town and teaching Spanish to area seniors.
"The main thing is that it keeps me active and meeting new people all the time," Mr. Templeman says. "It's an eye on the world I wouldn't have otherwise."
Mr. Templeman, who retired from his work as an international economist nearly a decade ago, says helping others engenders a feeling of satisfaction within him.
"It isn't just a time filler. It's rewarding in many ways," says Mr. Templeman, who also has worked with Habitat for Humanity and helped seniors during tax season. "When I retired, I was working 12-hour days How am I gonna keep busy? I don't play golf."
His past work with Habitat for Humanity, which helps build homes for struggling families, proved a revelation for him.
"I wasn't born rich, but I had good jobs and I was taught to save," he says. "It was a real eye opener."
George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni, whose Communitarian Network advocates that people regularly help each other, says it is human nature to want to help our fellow man.
Sometimes people perform good deeds for selfish reasons, such as hoping to earn a tax credit. Mostly, though, Mr. Etzioni says, we perform acts of charity because "we believe its the right thing to do," like a religious person fasting on atonement day.
"Nobody can tell me that I'm dong this for fun or for a tax break," he says of such a spiritual sacrifice.
"There's a mountain of evidence that says any spirituality or reaching out reduces tension," he continues. "Tension has a physical cost. It challenges our immune system."

Mrs. Chester says not all volunteer efforts are for everyone.
"If you don't feel comfortable with elderly people, you don't have to go to a nursing home," she says.
Mrs. Chester and Zoe, however, enjoy spending the occasional afternoon with some local senior citizens.
"We've been told by the staff that people can be more alert and less depressed for up to 48 hours" after a visit by her or a fellow PAL representative, she says.
Some of those bonds remain strong for weeks, if not years.
"If you're consistent, you develop a relationship with whatever place you're going to," she says.
Mrs. Chester has no plan to abandon her volunteer work, regardless of its health benefits.
"For me, now that my kids are grown, to go once a week is sort of a luxury because I enjoy it so much," she says.
Dr. Dossey suggests that Mrs. Chester isn't alone. Those who dabble in charitable work, he says, rarely cast it aside.
"I don't know anybody who gets involved with charity work who does it just once. It's really not a casual endeavor for most people."

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