The Helper’s High
Increasingly we are understanding the healthy benefits of practices that we can adopt in an effort to live a long and happy life. This is highly relevant to the millions of people who suffer chronic pain across the globe.
To suffer chronic pain is to be consistently in a state of protect. Pain is a feature of this state and whilst it is temporary and transient, the person experiencing chronic pain will frequently exist in such a state. Developing skills to shift into a healthier or ‘care-giving’ state (as I call it with people I work with) is fundamental to overcoming pain. With this in mind I have invited contributions from people who have volunteered to do positive work to gain insight into how it made them feel.
You may be wondering how someone with hugely impacting chronic pain could engage with such work. Indeed it would be a challenge for many and to some seem impossible. However, with some thought and planning, volunteering to help others can come in many forms. This benefits all — the giver and the receiver. And like any practice, the more it is done, the easier it becomes. We can all access the ‘helper’s high‘. So, here’s a fascinating story about a recent journey to Ghana to do positive work.
I have recently been on a journey, both physical and metaphorical. I would like to share parts of this journey with you, if you can spare a few moments and I promise to try and not be too smug about it. I am one of those people who has always worked hard and despite warnings from friends and family over the years, I almost certainly worked too hard and too long. By training, I am a research biochemist, but after several years of lab research, I became more involved in the public engagement side of science and eventually ended up working in the science museum sector – inspiring others in the beauty of science. In a working life of over 20 years, I only ever took one day off sick, never used my full annual leave allowance, started early, left late and often went in to the lab/ office at the weekends – sound familiar? Relationships with friends fell by the wayside and I essentially became totally engrossed in work, always telling myself that I was doing a lot of good for a lot of people. This might have been true (the jury is still out), but I certainly didn’t save any lives and I definitely didn’t earn a bucket load of cash that I might have tried to buy happiness with – as I perceive some other people try to do!
A couple of months ago, I was made redundant. At first, there was shock, but then the rational side of me kicked in and I acknowledged to myself that over the previous few months, I had actually been pretty miserable at work and at least this was going to be an end to that. As I thought through my options, I started to recognise just how much of my personal time was given over to work and that I would actually be getting all of that back as well – it was going to be an opportunity to start again, but without actually having to choose to start again! I decided that I was not going to panic and find a new job, any job, as soon as possible, but instead I was going to do something amazing and meaningful with the time that I now had. I was going to do something that I would have considered myself crazy and irresponsible to have done under normal circumstances. So I went to Ghana for a month and volunteered on community projects.
It really was an incredible place. The people were so friendly and welcoming as well as having the best names in the world. I don’t tend to meet people called Blessing, Comfort, Princess or Leticia very often and I certainly don’t meet many children called Alan, Norbert, Theophilius or Richlove! Just the names put a smile on my face! I didn’t once, in four weeks, hear a child cry or a parent shout at a child; it just seemed to be a country where people were content, despite the extreme poverty that we witnessed. The main project that I was working on was building a new school, but we also ran a community library that would only open if volunteers came and opened it. Every day there were around 30 children outside, waiting for us to arrive, desperate to read, practice their English or do some colouring. In this tiny, remote town in the clouds above Ghana, there was such a strong desire to learn.
One day each week we would visit a hyper-remote village, the sorts of places that you see on comic-relief with a celebrity shedding a tear. But there were no celebrities here, just mud and straw huts, dirty water and smiling children. We would install and demonstrate water filters, carry out minor first aid and dispense food, clothes and hygiene products – basic human rights types of things!
I was a fair bit older than most of the volunteers (who were largely on gap years or had just finished university) such that I effectively became the house Dad. The vast majority of these people though were remarkable in their commitment and resolve. Yes, one or two were clearly on a holiday or just wanting to have something interesting to say on their personal statement, but most were far more interesting and mature than I was at their age – and despite the Dad jokes, I felt welcomed into their community as much as the Ghanaians welcomed me into theirs.
Now that I am back home, I am of course considering my future and especially my future employment. My Ghana experience has shown me how much I personally value helping others. I think I have always been quite a nice person, willing to help others, but I now feel that I want go out of my way to try and make other people’s lives a bit easier if I can and from a career perspective, I am certainly looking at organisations whose missions are to help others. As I left employment I told my former colleagues that I was going to go somewhere and do something incredible, even creating the Instagram hashtag #smugken to let me boast about it. There was a certain amount of hope in that desire to do something incredible, but my experience in Ghana has certainly affected me in a very positive way, enriching my life and giving me a strong sense of wellbeing. It might not last, but I hope it does, because I really do think I prefer the version of me that has come back from Ghana.