31 Days of Movement:  Helper's High

According to the New York Times, it’s estimated that in 2009 people who participated in runs for charities generated $1 billion in funds (2010 article). 

While there are many reasons to run a race, running for a charity often is what spurs someone to start training or for the casual runner to decide to enter a race. I did the May 2013 Run for the Kenyans because it was a fun way to donate (money raised went to birthing centers in Africa) and because it gave me a reason to raise awareness by talking and FaceBooking about the event. 

Just as there is a runner’s high, a flood of endorphins for someone engaged in cardiovascular activities, there’s also a helper’s high, which is a flood of endorphins we get when we help others. We’re hard-wired to give. It’s in our biology to be rewarded to give to others and to support them ("Why Giving Makes You Happy"). 

If you want to live a long healthy life, eating well and moving well is a good start. But it’s got nothing on developing meaningful relationships with others and helping others. Christine Carter writing in Psychology Today says, “People 55 and older who volunteer for two or more organizations have an impressive 44 percent lower likelihood of dying—and that’s after sifting out every other contributing factor, including physical health, exercise, gender, habits like smoking, marital status, and many more. This is a stronger effect than exercising four times a week or going to church; it means that volunteering is nearly as beneficial to our health as quitting smoking!”

Giving our money to others makes us feel good about ourselves. We feel good that we’ve done a good deed. We also feel wealthier (referred to as “subjective wealth” by this article) because we recognize we have enough money to give it away to those who have less money. Even giving just five dollars is enough to make us feel happier (here's the experiment they did, one of many that shows people get more happiness out of spending on others rather than on ourselves). 


This morning I taught a Nia class by donation at Studio Sway (thank you, Sway and Ashley Biggers, for donating the space for our class). We raised $500 for the Malala Fund

The first time I did this was 7 or 8 years ago at Midtown Sports and Wellness, and the turnout was huge, over 60 people, on Christmas Eve morning. About a week before Christmas, I realized I wanted Christmas to feel good by focusing on giving to others, not just my family.  I decided that I would match the amount the group raised, and that prompted Margie Polito to decide to do the same (this is what psychologists mean when they say giving is contagious -- and it's one reason I tell this story). 

The Helper’s High I had that Christmas was the strongest I’ve ever experienced. I was a bit euphoric, and it transformed that Christmas for me. 

Since then, interestingly, I don’t really notice a helper’s high. I feel this is what I am supposed to be doing, and doing it doesn’t feel special and doesn’t make me special. I don’t volunteer (one estimate is that 1 in 4 of us volunteer every year), so this is my way of supporting others. We all should be doing something to help others. It just seems natural to me. I am so blessed, and that may sound canned or corny, but, no, I’m really clear that I’m safe and warm and well-fed, every year, and that is not the normal state for most people; that’s luxury.

What does feel extraordinarily special is that we gather each year on Christmas Eve morning to dance together. If it weren’t a fundraiser, we’d still gather, just as we do for Thanksgiving morning, for instance. It feels transformative to share music and dance together. There’s the extra power of coming together for a cause. It feels transformative to put our donating power together.

Today in class there were at least 2 sets of siblings and 2 sets of mother/daughters. I got to see them hug each other and dance together. I get a wee bit of helper’s higher knowing that my being there to teach class provided the space for them to have that time together. Again, this may sound corny, but here it is: it is an honor to do this. I'm blessed with a devoted, happy, active community of dancers. Yes.

Seeing smiles on people’s faces as we played air guitar to Powder’s “Christmas Don’t Be Late” was my Christmas present. We got to play this morning. 


If you’ve had trouble motivating yourself to move, do it for someone else. There’s even an app for that. One popular one is called Charity Miles. Here are 10 other apps for giving to charities. 

If you don’t want to deal with a program, set your own goals. Decide you’re going to workout five times a week in January, and for each workout, you put a dollar in a jar to go to your favorite organization. If you don’t workout, you’re withholding money from people who need it! You better work out! Each time you workout, you’ll see the amount in the jar get bigger. 


If you’ve got even a touch of the holiday blues, I highly recommend making a donation to a group about which you feel strongly. I also recommend a good workout to raise your endorphins and get yourself grounded in your body. I recommend further good hugs and good food. I wish you all a good winter’s night rest.