What is the “helper-therapy” principle? New systematic reviews shed light

By Jean Rhodes
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Helper Therapy Principle

If you’re in the field of mentoring, you should probably know about the helper-therapy principle. It was first articulated by Frank Riessman in 1965, and helped shape the field of psychology’s understanding of altruism and empathy. In his 1965 seminal paper, Riessman challenged the traditional notion that the benefits of helping were one-sided, flowing only from the helper to the helped. He argued that the act of helping others could be a source of personal growth, self-validation, and psychological well-being for the helper. Risesman and others have argued that being helpful can have a number of profound effects:

  • Personal Growth: Helping others often leads to a deeper understanding of oneself, fostering empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence while offseting feelings of stagnation and loss,
  • Social Connection: Engaging in helping behaviors can create social bonds and reduce feelings of isolation, contributing to a sense of community and belonging
  • Enhanced Self-Esteem: The positive feedback and appreciation received from helping others can boost self-esteem and self-worth ).
  • Therapeutic Benefits: Some studies have even drawn parallels between the act of helping and formal therapy, suggesting that helping others can lead to reduced stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Brain Functioning: Recent studies have found that volunteerism can even delay or reverse declining brain functioning.

Several stuides in this issue of the Chronicle highlight the benefits of mentoring to college students. And,  nearly 60 years after Reisman’s classic paper, researchers have published systematic reviews of the benefits of volunteering for older adults–including positive health outcomes and decreased lonliness. 

Two New Systematic reviews

  1. Hui-Fen Hsu, Kuei-Min Chen & Frank Belcastro (2023): Types of Voluntary Work and Influence of Participation for Older Volunteers: A Systematic Review of Qualitative Studies, Journal of Gerontological Social Work, DOI: 10.1080/01634372.2023.2205908

This systematic reviewed sought to synthesize the evidence for associations between volunteering and and range of outcomes among older adults. A total of 10 articles from several countries met the criteria for inclusion in the systematic review. All of the 10 studies were qualitative studies in nature (e.g., interviews, focus group interviews). The study revealed that older adults who are female, married, retired, and have higher education are more likely to participate in voluntary work, mainly in healthcare or social care. The majority of older volunteers prefer to volunteer in community settings. And, importantly, o lder volunteers perceive positive influences related to health outcomes and the development of helping knowledge and skills

 2. Akhter-Khan, S. C., Hofmann, V., Warncke, M., Tamimi, N., Mayston, R., & Prina, M. A. (2023). Caregiving, volunteering, and loneliness in middle-aged and older adults: a systematic review. Aging & Mental Health, 27(7), 1233-1245. DOI: 10.1080/13607863.2022.2144130

This systematic review sought to synthesize the evidence for associations between unpaid productive activities (such as caregiving and volunteering) and loneliness among middle-aged and older adults. A total of 28 articles from 21 countries with 191,652 participants (52.5% women) were included. The unpaid productive activities were classified into four categories: general caregiving, grandparental caregiving, spousal caregiving, and volunteering.

The researchers found that whereas loneliness was positively associated with spousal caregiving, suggesting that caring for a spouse may be an isolating experience, grandparental caregiving and volunteering activities were negatively associated with loneliness, indicating that they may lead to increased social networks and more diverse daily activities.

Of course, we may not need systematic reviews convince many of us the benefits of being truly helpful to someone else. But its good to have this growing foundation of research support. Future research should further explore the conditions under which being helpful is most beneficial.