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The Happy Side-effects of Giving
We’ve all heard that the path to true happiness lies in giving back to others, often and without reservation, but what is the scientific reasoning behind this and why should you, and your company, care? This topic interests me dearly since as a health coach, one of the biggest successes in client outcomes is helping others raise their level of happiness. With more and more recent focus on being present in our life, and feeling happy in the absence of material possessions, this topic may be more timely than ever.
Companies are increasingly adopting corporate volunteering initiatives. These can be in the form of charity drives, organized volunteer operations, or allowing employees to take time off work to volunteer without counting against their personal paid time off. Companies like Salesforce and Patagonia are vocal about their paid time off volunteer policies and they are proven to be good for business, boosting positive PR for the company, increasing employee loyalty, and appealing to a socially-conscious millennial workforce.
While cash can go a long way, volunteering time and man power can be extremely useful to non-profit organizations who may be understaffed and especially during holidays which bring an influx of donations. Even if a charity were to choose money if given the option, the contribution of a volunteer connecting with those in need can be profound. A London-based non-profit executive says -
"Volunteers who are able to commit sustained time and effort to support people directly…can make a profound difference to people’s lives. When you try and put a value on that, it is substantial."
This last point may be exactly where the connection between volunteering and a rise in self-reported happiness lies. It’s in the direct connection to the cause that volunteers get a healthy dose of benefits, some of which translate into tangible improvements in the body. For example, those who volunteer experience lower blood pressure and more longevity. A Carnegie Mellon study concluded — “Adults over age 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers”.
Although the exact cause of this is hard to determine, one reason could be lower stress. The hormones associated with stress, cortisol and adrenaline, are all too abundant in our hectic daily lives and result in near constant high blood pressure associated with a fight or flight mode. Any breaks from our daily routine, such as in the form of volunteering, can be very welcome from a biological standpoint. A variety of other reported benefits of volunteering are: more physical activity, feeling more confident and able to cope with challenges, building new friendships and connections, and feeling a sense of purpose and happiness.
It’s long been understood that humans are social creatures and could not have evolved into modern day society without building connections and relying on each other. Volunteering might fulfill this primitive desire to feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Volunteering is also likely to increase gratitude for the abundance each of us has in our life which we so often take for granted, making us more present to our many fortunes. Finally, the experience of compassion is cultivated when we come in contact with those who need our help, and in providing help we gain a sense of deeper purpose.
Although there seems to be a generational divide in preferring to contribute time or money, which may be in part due to younger generations not having as much of a discretionary income, Americans of all ages overwhelmingly agree that giving to others is important. This holiday season I had the great pleasure of experiencing the benefits of volunteering first hand. For the past several years, two friends and I have self-organized a clothing donation drive for the Chicago homeless. This year with my friend's dedication in spreading the word around the city over 450 items were collected through his apartment building. After the help of 4 additional volunteers, 7 of us set out to distribute the warmest, most practical pieces around Michigan Avenue — one of the windiest areas of Chicago. This part of the evening is critical — bringing items directly to those who might need them allows us to connect and understand what another person may be going through. This is the part that cannot be bypassed. Nothing can replace the excitement and gratitude that giving your time can provide.
The combined feelings of compassion, connection and service create a “helper’s high” due to an influx of endorphins - the feel good chemicals released in our brain. The day following our donation distribution I experienced a joy similar to that which follows a great high-intensity workout class or a prolonged period of meditation. My entire prefrontal cortex felt awake and supercharged, ready to solve any challenge.
The impact our small operation had also opened our eyes to how easy it is to impact the lives of others. Our inaction is often a result of feeling like our work won’t matter, or feeling like there is no way that we can make a tangible difference in the life of another individual. In thinking of how we can do something for everyone we can become paralyzed, in the end doing nothing at all. What we learned above all else is how little time, money and energy it actually takes to inspire hope and live life with purpose. As I type this, Margaret Meade’s quote comes to mind —
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has"
Does your company have a volunteer initiative and if not, can you raise this as a suggestion? Volunteering with coworkers is an incredible opportunity to bond over a shared experience. Has your family had an opportunity to volunteer together? Consider skipping a trip to the movies and find a worthy organization in your community where you can lend a hand. While our “Spread the Warmth” initiative has been seasonal to date, we’ll be looking for opportunities to volunteer throughout the year and make sure to bring as many friends along as possible. There are few substitutes for the connection and sense of belonging that group volunteering creates. I hope you consider self-organizing an initiative of your own!
Originally written in December 2016 and published on Medium.
Marina Kay is a Wellness and Mindset Coach for Professional Women. Having overcome burnout, she decided to reinvent her life to prioritize wellness, travel, and contribution in the space of personal coaching. She uses tools like breathwork, meditation and somatic healing techniques to help her clients overcome chronic stress and rise in leadership without burning out.
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