Admiration, Happiness, and Meaning: How to Get All Three

Maybe you know Henry, my Golden Retriever. He’s a licensed therapy dog who revels in visiting residents in dementia care. He works on a dog/handler team who make weekly (or more) visits to vulnerable people who are behind locked doors for the rest of their life. Through no fault of their own, as they descend into confusion, and sometimes despair, the residents find moments of joy and connection with trained dogs.  Who better to lend a helping hand–or paw–than Henry and me?

The act of helping others this way is often seen as a noble endeavor aimed primarily at benefiting the needy person. However, a growing body of research is uncovering how the act of helping can offer profound benefits to the helpers themselves. People who regularly volunteer gain social trust and admiration, increased happiness, and meaning.

Reputational Benefits of Helping Others

Society values helping. While you might not have had a therapy dog, when you were in school, you may have participated in service projects, accumulating hours for a graduation requirement. You might not have found this appealing or well-being inducing. When we regularly help others, though, we not only impact their lives positively but can also boost our own reputation. 

Observational studies and psychological research have highlighted that college students who engage in prosocial behaviors, doing “good” such as volunteering or charitable acts, are often seen more favorably by others. Enhanced perception can lead to increased social approval and cooperation from both recipients of help, if they are able, and from onlookers. This psycho-social mechanism underscores a significant portion of the incentive for engaging in prosocial behavior: a positive reputation is valuable social currency that fosters trust and furthers collaborative opportunities.

Psychological Benefits Beyond Social Approval

Beyond reputational enhancements, helping others contributes to our psychological well-being. This includes increasing both positive emotional states and reducing negative emotions. For instance, studies have shown that spending money on others can increase one’s happiness more than spending the same amount on oneself. Similarly, volunteering is associated with higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction and can even help alleviate one’s own sadness when responding to someone else’s distress.

While prosocial behavior reliably promotes happiness, its impact on life’s meaning is more nuanced. Meaningfulness often arises from complex and sometimes challenging experiences and involves a broader spectrum of emotional and cognitive processes. The pursuit of meaningfulness through helping others can engage us in more profound aspects of our minds as we reflect on life’s bigger questions.

Prosocial Behavior, Meaning, and Purpose

Research in the U.S. involving nationally representative samples has indicated that prosocial behaviors not only enhance a helper’s mood but also elevate their sense of life’s meaning, through the route of increased feelings of self-worth. People who act generously report a heightened sense of personal value and self-esteem and want to help even more as a result. These findings resonate with philosophical and religious teachings that champion finding purpose through service to others.

Though the act of helping is often directed outward, its boomerang effects on reputation, psychological health, and personal development are profound. Promoting prosocial behavior can enhance personal well-being and catalyze broader societal benefits. It can be as much about helping oneself as it is about assisting others. Encouraging a culture of helping can also be a key strategy for enhancing both individual fulfillment and community well-being.

Why I Volunteer With Henry

More happy tears have been shed than I can count when family members and caregivers see their loved one energized during a dog visit. Most weekends Henry and I go with the team to our “workplaces”. We even went during the COVID years, masked and sanitized to help strangers feel seen and loved. When you train a dog to be a volunteer, you don’t necessarily know what role will become their best fit. Like collaborators, you discover, create, and grow, together. And you play.

I’ve been asked why when I already have a busy professional life helping people that I spend  time and money this way. A visit with Henry spreads magic. People who rarely speak have conversations with him, sharing bits of their lives while he gazes at them with his “love eyes” and wags his tail. They feed him treats. Henry demonstrates his dancing talent to residents’ once-popular music that’s playing in the meeting room. Previously impassive people watch and smile, showing glimpses of the humanity that is within.  They ask Henry, “Do you remember me?” and I say, “Yes, this is Henry. He’s so glad to see you again.”

Henry is modest about his reputation for generous volunteering. Smiles indicate the three well-being benefits: admiration, happiness, and meaning. You can follow him at #unleashinghenry


About the author

Sherri Fisher, MEd, MAPP, executive coach and learning specialist, uncovers client motivation and focus for perseverance. She has decades of successful experience working with students, parents, and professionals who face learning, attention, and executive function challenges at school, home, and work.

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