My mother's philosophy in life about giving is, "If you can, you should." To this day, she is a living example of service to others as a way of life. Whether she is teaching a man in her community how to read, befriending the only outwardly gay teen in her tiny upstate town, or volunteering at the church soup kitchen, she is always giving.
My mother grew up poor but says she never felt poor. She grew up grateful for everything she did have, working hard for what she wanted. She instilled in me a deep desire to serve, and the gift of gratitude for every little blessing this benevolent universe throws my way. So what is so good about giving anyway? Why are we taught "'Tis better to give than to receive?" Why exactly does it feel so good when we give to others? And what are the long-term societal benefits of giving as a chosen lifestyle?
There actually is a science behind giving.
In grad school, I read studies on the positive emotional impact of volunteerism for the giver. Self-esteem increased and symptoms of depression decreased from becoming an important part of the solution for a person in need. Feel-good hormones like serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine may be released when a person sees a direct positive result from their good deeds. The act of being of service and exchanging positive energy with another human is a psychological and emotional win-win.
When I started my psychotherapy practice, I decided to integrate these findings into my clinical work. With depressed clients, when appropriate, I suggested volunteering as a way to combat depression. In as little as two hours a week, the giver benefitted immensely, and I observed a significant elevation in the depressed mood. As such, volunteering and community service has become an integral part of my practice.
As an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, I decided to implement the same protocol, making volunteering a mandatory assignment for my advanced class. The administration and some students questioned the relevance of service to others in an acting class. But I knew that young students, many from privileged backgrounds, would benefit from expanding their sphere of experience (and, secretly, I hoped it might become a permanent part of their lives). Now, years later, many former students still keep in touch with me and remember what a positive impact the "mandatory class assignment" had on them.
Thanksgiving and the upcoming holiday is a perfect time to remember what this season is really all about. An intriguing study from the Corporation for National and Community Service titled "The Health Benefits of Volunteering" showed that states with higher volunteer rates have overall better health and lower rates of heart disease. Along with the positive physical benefits, an increase in mental health was reported due to the personal sense of accomplishment from the volunteer activity. Volunteers also have lower rates of depression and live longer.
A good bang for your altruistic buck!
As Thomas H. Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard University, said in the study, "Civic engagement and volunteering is the new hybrid health club for the 21st century that's free to join ... Social capital research shows it miraculously improves both your health and the community's through the work performed and the social ties built."
So now that you know what's so darn good about giving, I hope you find it in your heart to join "the new hybrid health club" and get your giving on this holiday season!
Love Love Love
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