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How we help ourselves by helping others

Over the last several months, there’s been a larger conversation around self-care. Mental health professionals have reminded us that we cannot pour from an empty cup, to make sure we put on our oxygen masks first, and that self-care is not selfish.

All of these statements are true, and the conversation around self-care is an important one. The National Institute of Mental Health reports about one in five U.S. adults has a mental illness. That’s more than 51 million people.

While people certainly need and deserve to take time to themselves, there’s also another way to better your mental health, and it involves giving back. Volunteering has proven psychological and physical health benefits, including boosting moods and reducing blood pressure. Here’s how we can start helping ourselves by helping others.

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What are the mental health benefits of giving back?

The idea that helping others can help you isn’t mere happy talk. The idea has been put to the test by scientists and experts. Here’s what they’ve found.

  • Giving back makes you happier. A 2017 study found that giving back reduced depression, and another from 2013 concluded it was a good way to improve mental health.
  • It can help you make friends and reduce loneliness. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, experts raised red flags about a loneliness epidemic, particularly in older adults. Researchers warned that social isolation was as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. The same 2017 study that showed that giving back could reduce depression pointed to the social aspect of it — it gave people an outlet to connect. When you volunteer, you can meet new people and see them regularly. Those relationships may go beyond volunteer events and turn into friendships.
  • Volunteering builds self-confidence. When you feel good about what you’re doing for others, you feel good about yourself. You may also be proud of how you’ve assisted others in need, giving you another boost of self-confidence that can extend into your work and home life.
  • It can increase empathy. When we volunteer, we often see people or animals who have fallen on hard times. Hearing their stories can give you a different worldview, increasing your empathy. It may also help you become more understanding of a friend or family member working on their mental health.

What other benefits can I get from lending a hand?

Aside from mental health benefits, you may also find giving back comes with some added perks.

  • Job opportunities. Giving back can help you brush up on some skills, such as writing or office management, that you can put on your resume to sell yourself to future employers. It’s also a great way to network since you’re meeting new people.
  • It can boost physical health. Experts say that volunteering can lower blood pressure and increase your lifespan.

a woman in a face shield holding a dog

I want to get involved. What should I keep in mind?

Giving back can benefit your mind and body, but there are a couple of “don’ts” to remember.

  • Don’t overdo it. If you’re extremely busy at work, now may not be the time to take on a volunteer leadership position at a non-profit or plan the town’s charity 5K. Think of smaller ways you can give back, like donating food to a shelter. Even listening to a friend who is struggling can be helpful to them and you.
  • Don’t force it. You want to enjoy your time giving back. Choose an activity or cause you are passionate about. For example, if you love animals but cannot have a pet in your apartment, walking dogs may be a great option. Volunteering with your local American Cancer Society chapter can help you honor the memory of a loved one who died of cancer and be therapeutic for you.

How can I get involved?

There are many ways to find volunteer opportunities, including:

  • Family and friends
  • Colleagues
  • Your local place of worship
  • Web searches
  • Databases, like VolunteerMatch and JustServe

The idea of helping ourselves by helping others sounds nice in theory. But researchers have tested the idea over the years and have found that there’s truth to it. Giving back can boost mood, reduce depression, help us form new relationships, and make us more empathetic. Volunteering can also benefit us physically by lowering blood pressure. If the activity involves moving, such as building houses or walking dogs, it will also provide you with an outlet for physical activity. Though giving back is wonderful for many reasons, it’s essential only to do what you can. You don’t have to commit to volunteering 40 hours per week on top of your full-time job. Even driving your friend to an important doctor’s appointment is a way to lend a hand.

BlissMark provides information regarding health, wellness, and beauty. The information within this article is not intended to be medical advice. Before starting any diet or exercise routine, consult your physician. If you don’t have a primary care physician, the United States Health & Human Services department has a free online tool that can help you locate a clinic in your area. We are not medical professionals, have not verified or vetted any programs, and in no way intend our content to be anything more than informative and inspiring.

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BethAnn Mayer
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