As we celebrate our independence this 4th of July, this seems like a good time to consider the importance of giving to others and to community. There are many reasons that courage, generosity, and giving to community and to future generations are important, but for psychologists who study or treat adversity, like I do, one under-appreciated aspect of these characteristics are the role they play in resilience and recovering from adversity. These are the elements that give meaning to people’s lives and have given so many the strength to persevere despite incredible obstacles and even despite overwhelming loss. For example, consider recovering from the death of a loved one. Focusing on the needs of children or other family members is perhaps one of the best ways to manage one’s grief. Caring for others is often what inspires people to find the strength to carry on. Love for one’s country and dedication to duty is often what allows soldiers to soldier on.
The same is true for victims of violence. We often think about victims in terms of their own needs, but sometimes what helps victims the most is not getting their needs met by others. Instead, victims often benefit by helping others, including sharing their story, finding other ways to use their experience to help others, or using their other talents and resources to help others. Many survivors of violence become active in the anti-violence movement and that can be a key part of recovery and moving on from their own experiences of victimization. Similarly, many former alcoholics and addicts become sponsors in Alcoholics Anonymous or substance abuse counselors and use their own past to help others. This can even be a way of protecting others from what you went through. For example, one woman who was abused by her partner said one way she helped recover from the violence and also protect and help her children was through volunteering: “Volunteered more at school—in fact made “Volunteer of the Year”—able to get a little closer to the staff while making sure my children knew they had the support from at least one parent.” (from the book Battered Women’s Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know which will be released this fall by Oxford University Press). Even research participation is a way of giving back and helping others learn from you have been through. Many times I have heard that it means a lot to people to feel that by telling their story they are helping others.
Unfortunately, there is little research on how volunteering, activism, and family and community involvement can help people recover from all kinds of difficult situations. There are hundreds of studies on the social support that victims receive but very little on how much they give. The information that exists, though, suggests that community involvement and working towards ameliorating social problems helps the volunteers as much as those they serve. So, if you are struggling with recovering from a difficult event or if you are trying to help someone who is, on this 4th of July remember to look towards your children, your loved ones, your neighbors and your friends. Reaching out to help them may be one of the best things you can do for yourself as well.