Giving of one’s time, talents and resources to help others is one of the greatest things we can do as human beings. Whether it’s spending time mentoring an at-risk youth, delivering meals to the elderly, or simply volunteering to ring a Salvation Army bell around the holidays, volunteering is an action that benefits both the donor and the benefactor.
When I was about 15, my grandfather signed me up to help him ring a Salvation Army bell on the coldest day of the year in front of the Walgreen’s in my tiny hometown. I was anything but excited to spend two hours (a teenager’s eternity) standing in front of a busy drugstore ringing a bell for all to see.
A lifetime later and years after I’ve lost my grandfather, it’s one of the warmest, most poignant memories I have of our time together. It was interesting to see all who passed us by and those who gave all they had, however little that may have been. As one older gentleman with shaking hands struggled to drop several coins into the bucket, he looked up at me, smiled and said, “Every little bit helps.” I was moved to tears even at that young age, but I had no idea that all these years later his words would still be with me, setting the tone for my philosophy on giving.
But I digress. Memory lane gets me every time.
I recently read an interesting Huffington Post article by Arianna Huffington about the transformative power of giving — for both our mental and physical wellbeing.
Huffington cites numerous studies, among them a recent one conducted by scientists from the University of North Carolina and UCLA that discovered participants whose happiness was more focused on consumption had high levels of biological markers that promote inflammation — linked to conditions like diabetes and cancer. Those whose happiness was based on service to others had profiles that showed reduced levels of these markers. Another study performed this year by Dr. Suzanne Richards of the University of Exeter Medical School found that volunteering was connected to lower rates of depression, high reports of wellbeing and a significant reduction in mortality risk.
The positive effects of volunteerism translate to the workplace, too. In a study conducted earlier this year by United Health Group, results showed that employees participating in volunteer programs demonstrated increased engagement and productivity; over 75 percent of participants said they felt healthier and less stressed; over 90 percent said volunteering had put them in a better mood; and an astounding 96 percent said that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life. The list goes on and on.
But enough of the statistics already. The point here is that by putting compassion in action, we improve not only our mood, but also our overall health. As Huffington so eloquently put it, “Essentially, giving back is a miracle drug (with no side effects) for health and wellbeing.” Our body rewards us for helping others. Who knew?
On the cusp of another holiday season, I’d like to encourage you to give your time and resources to a person or organization in need. Find an organization whose mission aligns with your beliefs, skills and/or interests and get to it! I plan to practice what I preach this year as well. Stay tuned. Need help finding the perfect volunteer opportunity? Visit VolunteerMatch.org to find your perfect fit.
I have watched numerous Ted Talks on how to improve performance at work and at home, and how to harness happiness to balance the strenuous demands of both without going cuckoo. But few have moved or motivated me quite like Shawn Achor‘s video on what he calls “The Happiness Advantage.” He’s hilarious, slightly self-deprecating and completely relatable. In the video, which I’ve included in this post, he talks about how in order to be happy with your oftentimes imperfect job/life situation, you have to look at things through a different lens. You have to view obstacles and challenges as amazing opportunities to grow; you have to think outside of your comfort zone to utilize your skill set in unique ways; you have to believe in yourself and realize your full potential, rather than just trudge on blinded by your “I cant’s.” We can accomplish so many great things if we only focus our energies and acknowledge our potential. It’s all information we already know, but the way Achor presents it is unique and empowering. So when I discovered he wrote a book as well, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
Citing numerous studies and real-life situations, Achor’s book is a must-read. One of my favorite sections of the book discusses The Tetris Effect, which is based on a Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry study. In the study, 27 people were paid to play Tetris for multiple hours a day, three days in a row. For days after the study, some participants couldn’t stop dreaming about shapes falling from the sky. Many couldn’t stop seeing their world as being made of of sequences of Tetris blocks. Some even found themselves strategically rearranging real-life items – like cereal boxes in the grocery store – in their heads as if they were still playing Tetris.
The point here is that when we get into the habit of looking for errors or seeing things in a negative light, we often extend that behavior to all aspects of our lives. The maxim “old habits die hard,” is for real. Achor suggests ways to reset our negative thought patterns to create a more positive Tetris effect at work and at home.
He suggests kick starting that reset by writing down a list of “three good things” that have happened every single day. It’s a challenge, but I’ve found that by focusing on the positive, my negatives don’t seem as significant. By constantly forcing yourself to scan for the positive in the day, rather than dwell on the negative, you adjust the lens through which you view the world. But the only way to fully reap the benefits of the exercise is to practice, practice, practice. I’m still struggling with the every single day part, but I’m getting better all the time.
I hope the video below inspires you as much as it has me.