This article was originally published in the Mountain View Voice on January 13, 2015
This week is all about serving others and how, ironically, serving others is one of the top 10 best things you can do for your own mental health.
In my work with clients, I consistently emphasize the significance of working to reduce suffering in others. I do this with clients managing depression, anxiety, work dissatisfaction, interpersonal conflicts, the list goes on and on, and literally includes just about everyone I see.
My reasons for doing this are plain and simple: despite what television advertisements and billboards suggest, spending time accumulating stuff isn't likely to significantly improve your mood over time. You'll get a quick burst of excitement for a few hours, maybe a few days, and then you'll just want more stuff.
However, spending time caring for and helping others has been shown to significantly improve a range of psychological factors including confidence, self-awareness, self-esteem, depression, well-being, social-connectedness, life satisfaction, and coping (Schwartz & Sendor, 1999; Fredrickson et al., 2008; Hofmann et al., 2011; Hutcherson et al., 2008; Mascaro et al., 2012; Mongrain et al., 2011; Buchanan & Bardi, 2010). I think we can all agree that there isn't a watch, television set, or clothing item that can claim to do the same. And yet, when we think of how to improve our mood or cheer someone up, we often turn to shopping.
Anecdotally, in my work connecting people with opportunities to serve others has often represented *the* turning point in therapy. From the self-injuring adolescent who decided to commit himself to vegetarianism, to the chronically depressed mother of two who began volunteering at the local multiple sclerosis chapter and contributing to housing builds abroad, I've seen people transform and improve their lives by helping others.
So where to begin? What's realistic? What can you do when you are already doing so much for your family?
If you have lots of time on you hands or are hoping to really shake things up in 2015, consider becoming involved in a favorite cause. For me it has always been about the animals. And I could literally go on and on about opportunities for helping animals as this is where I've focused most of my volunteer work. In the Bay Area, check out the Humane Society of Silicon Valley, they need all sorts of volunteers requiring varying levels of commitment. For animal issues beyond domestic pets, check out PETA - they too are always looking for volunteers in and around the Bay Area.
Not sure what your calling is or how to connect with volunteer programs? Check out Silicon Valley One Brick. They have an *excellent* model for supporting non-profits with an emphasis on "commitment free" volunteering for those of us with little time to offer. They also promote community building by hosting get togethers following each event.
If you have some sense of what interests you and/or the location in which you'd like to focus, check out volunteermatch.org. You can search for opportunities to volunteer based on the type of cause (e.g., health & medicine, children & youth) or location (e.g., local, national, or international).
If you have little time on your hands, consider integrating a 10-minute loving kindness meditation practice into your daily routine. There is extensive research on the benefits of Loving Kindness Meditation; evidence now suggests that even a short, 10-minute practice can increase social connectedness and positivity towards strangers (Hutcherson et al., 2008). Check out this free, guided meditation on YouTube to learn more.
Finally, if you have experiences with compassion in action or practice, please share them with us. Know of a great volunteer opportunity? Leave a comment with the details below. Have you found a Loving Kindness Practice that resonates with you? Tell us about it. My experience has been that most people genuinely want to help and contribute; we just don't always know where or how to begin.