Helping others has been an integral part of the folk wisdom about addiction recovery for more than 250 years. From early Native American recovery circles, early Euro-American recovery mutual aid societies and the 20th century advent of 12-Step recovery through the ever-widening menu of religious, spiritual and secular recovery pathways, the message has been clear: help yourself by helping others. The helping prescription is based on two core ideas. The first is the concept of wounded healer--the notion that people who have experienced and survived an illness or great trauma may have acquired unique perspectives that allow them to offer assistance to others in similar circumstances. The second is what sociologist Frank Riessman called the helper principle--the idea that the act of helping benefits the helper as much (or quite often more) than the person being helped.
This folk wisdom and the principles underlying it have been rigorously tested in a series of scientific studies about the effects of helping activities on long-term recovery outcomes. And you guessed it, science is confirming what people in recovery have long learned through their collective experience: If you want to achieve recovery from addiction and if you want to enhance your quality of life in recovery, reach out each day to help others achieve those same goals.
Here is a sampling of the modern studies that support this suggestion.
Crape, B.L., Latkin, C.A., Laris, A.S., & Knowlton, A.R. (2002). The effects of sponsorship in 12-Step treatment of injection drug users. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 65, 291-301.
Cross, G.M., Morgan, C.W., Mooney, A.J., Martin, C.A., & Rafter, J.A. (1990). Alcoholism treatment: A ten-year follow-up study. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 14, 169-173.
Latkin, C.A. (1998). Outreach in natural settings: The use of peer leaders for HIV prevention among injecting drug users' networks. Public Health Reports, 114, Supplement 1, 151-159.
Pagano, M., Kelly J.F., Scur, M., Ionescu, R., Stout, R.L. & Post, S. (2013). Assessing youth participation in AA-related helping: Validity of the Service to Others in Sobriety (SOS) Questionnaire in an adolescent sample. American Journal on Addictions, 22(1), 60-6.
Pagano, M.E., Post, S.G., & Johnson, S.M. (2011). Alcoholics Anonymous-related helping and the helper therapy principle. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly?29(1), 23-34.
Pagano, M.E., Krentzman, A.R., Onder, C.C., Baryak, J.L., Murphy, J.L., Zywiak, W.H., & Stout, R.L. (2010). Service to Others in Sobriety (SOS). Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly 28(2), 111-127.
Pagano, M.E., Phillips, K.A., Stout, R.L., Menard, W., & Piliavin, J.A. (2007). Impact of helping behaviors on the course of substance use disorders in individuals with body dysmorphic disorder. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 68(2), 291-295
Pagano, M.E., Zeltner, B., Jaber, J., Post, S., Zywiak, W.H., & Stout, R.L. (2009). Helping others and long-term sobriety: Who should I help to stay sober?. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly 27(1), 38-50.
Pagano, M.E., Zemore, S.E., Onder, C.C., & Stout, R.L. (2009). Predictors of initial AA-related helping: Findings from Project MATCH. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 70(1), 117-125.
Zemore, S. E. (2007). Helping as healing among recovering alcoholics. Southern Medical Journal, 100(4), 447-450.
Zemore, S. E., Kaskutas, L. A., & Ammon, L. N. (2004). In 12-step groups, helping helps the helper. Addiction, 99(8), 1015-1023. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2004.00782.x
Zemore, S.E. & Kaskutas, L.A. (2008). 12-Step involvement and peer helping in day hospital and residential programs. Substance Use and Misuse, 43, 1882-1903.
Zemore, S.E., & Pagano, M.E. (2009). Kickbacks from helping others: Health and recovery. In M. Galanter & L.A. Kaskustas (Eds.), Recent Developments in Alcoholism. Research on Alcoholics Anonymous and Spirituality in Addiction Recovery 18(2), 1-26.
Jackson, S.W. (2001). The wounded healer. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 75, 1-36.
Riessman, F. (1965). The "helper" therapy principle. Social Work, April, 27-32.