Give Yourself the Happiest (and Surprisingly Healthy) Holiday Gift: Volunteer

We are natural-born givers. Oh, you may not think so, especially when your rent goes up (again), or your brother refuses to lend you his wheels, or the pizza place won't honor your one-day-expired coupon. But we are.

I'm not even talking about the more obvious forms of giving: contributing dollars to charity, donating to Goodwill, sponsoring a foster child in a far away country. I'm talking about the ordinary, everyday, giving that we do spontaneously, without hesitation.

Look around you: People open doors for people loaded with packages, people smile and say thank you to baristas, busboys and mail carriers. People let others scoot in front of them in cashier lines. People leave water bowls out for dogs who aren't their own.

We don't even think about it. We naturally, unconsciously, give. Sure, there's the occasional bad apple who hoards and refuses to give, but for all the attention such miserly types get, they are few and far between.

Giving feels good. Not just to the person receiving the gift. Contrary to what you might think, giving makes the giver happy. Recent research shows that the habit that gives people the most happiness is -- of all things -- giving.

So why not indulge yourself, splurge and give maximally this holiday season? By volunteering. Not only can it make you happier, as a London School of Economics study discovered (the more people volunteered, the happier they were), but it can also make you healthier. As in less depressed, enjoy better heart health and be more likely to live longer.

Volunteering doesn't require a huge commitment of time, money or effort. You can choose to volunteer once a month, once a week, or once a year. What's important is to find the right fit of enthusiasm, time and effort that works best for you.

Did I mention enthusiasm? Ah, yes. Because the volunteering that will make you the happiest, and benefit the most to those on the receiving end, is volunteering for a cause or project that engages your mind and heart. You know, that enthusiasm that fires you up so much that effort doesn't feel like effort, and you're more energized when you're done than when you started? That's the kind of volunteering that puts a smile on your face, a bounce to your step, and does the most good.

Here are just a few ideas, from simple one-step easy ones to others more demanding of your time and energy. Google "volunteering" to find lots more. Which ones make you smile just at the thought of them? Those will be the ones for you.

1. Round up some new or slightly used toys and stuffed animals, take them to a children's hospital. Watch those little faces light up.

2. Be a for-real Santa. Local participating post offices accept letters from underprivileged children. Answer one by buying the requested gift, writing your "Hi, I'm Santa, have a great holiday" letter and mailing the package.

3. Find out who might need a little extra help in your neighborhood. Offer to rake leaves, shovel the walk, or do some housework for an elderly or disabled neighbor. You'd be surprised how much sprucing up someone's home or yard -- when they'd love to but aren't able to -- can lift their spirits.

4. Love animals? Volunteer at your local shelter. Shelters are always looking for volunteers for any number of tasks. Just try not to take too many of the adorable critters home with you!

5. Offer to spend time at a retirement home, coming up with fun and interesting activities (interactive where possible) with residents. The holidays can be particularly painful for those who don't have family to share them with. Your willingness to give of your time and smiles will be cherished.

Oh, and you might just run into Kevin Bacon, who was spotted in New York recently helping Citymeals prepare and deliver meals to homebound seniors. And here you thought "six degrees of separation" was movie fiction...

Volunteer this holiday season. It does a body -- yours and theirs -- good.