Helping Others Enhances Your Own Recovery

Research Confirms That Service Work Is Beneficial

AA Meeting
Leading an A.A. Meeting. © Getty images

There is a saying that many in recovery circles repeat that goes, "When I got busy, I got better." What it means is, in their effort to maintain sobriety and serenity, they found that doing service work to help others actually helped them stay clean and sober.

Now there is some scientific research that backs up the notion that helping others helps alcoholics and addicts become and stay sober.

The Helper Therapy Principle

Maria E.

Pagano, PhD, of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, in a published review cited several empirical studies that support the "helper terapy principle" or the idea that when someone helps another person with a similar condition, they help themselves.

The idea of "one drunk helping another" is one of the basic principles upon which Alcoholics Anonymous was founded. Pagano says the helper therapy principle helps alcoholics and addicts by deminishing egocentrism and selfishness, root causes of addiction.

"Helping others in the program of AA has forged a therapy based on the kinship of common suffering and has vast potential," she said in a news release. "These studies indicate that among alcoholics, AA-related helping and giving general help to others has positive effects on drinking outcomes and mental health variables."

Works With Other Conditions, Too

Although Pagano's research focused on the benefits of helping other alcoholics and addicts, her research found the same principle applies to people suffering from other conditions, such as depression, AIDS, or chronic pain.

"When humans help others regardless of a shared condition, they appear to live longer and happier lives," she adds. "The benefits of helping are significant because the costs of alcoholism and drug addiction to society are so great."

The Benefits of Helping Others

Pagano reviewed three previous Project MATCH-based studies that showed the recovery and mental health benefits to individuals who helped others:

  • A 2004 study that found that 40% of alcoholics who helped others avoided drinking for 12 months, compared to only 22% who did not help others.
  • A 2009 study that 94% of alcoholics who helped others at any time during the 15-month study experienced lower levels of depression.
  • Another study of alcoholics with body dysmorphic disorder - a condition in which a person is excessively preoccupied with a perceived physical defect - found that those who helped others were more like to maintain sobriety and develop an improved self image than non-helpers.

Applicable to All Seeking Treatment

"The research indicates that getting active in service helps alcoholics and other addicts become sober and stay sober, and suggests this approach is applicable to all treatment-seeking individuals with a desire to not drink or use drugs," Dr. Pagano said. "Helping others in the program of AA has forged a therapy based on the kinship of common suffering and has vast potential."

Source: Pagano, ME, et al Helping Others and Long-term Sobriety: Who Should I Help to Stay Sober?" Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly January 2009.

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