A Path Toward Happiness: Help Others, Help Yourself

Researchers have found that one of the key elements of happiness is altruism or kindness to others. It turns out that most human beings get a boost from helping others and doing good things for the world. I have often suggested volunteering as a therapeutic tool for improving mental health; especially with conditions like depression, anxiety, and youth behavior problems.

Idle youngsters can fill their time with activities that help others rather than getting into trouble. At the same time they get a lesson in empathy and gratitude. For those suffering from depression, volunteering can distract from personal troubles, get people out into the fresh air exercising or socializing, and help them feel more productive and valuable. Individuals with anxiety will often feel more willing to push themselves for the sake of others moreso than for their own wellbeing. Doing good works can help anxious individuals confront fears, change perspectives, and provide a needed distraction from worries and concerns.

When I suggest volunteering as a therapeutic activity, many clients ask, “Where do I start?”. They feel overwhelmed and constrained by time demands or self-doubts. But volunteer activities can take many forms and can be quite flexible and diverse, so something can usually be found to meet a variety of needs and circumstances. The following are some resources for finding volunteer opportunities that fit most any situation.

The Right Match
When choosing a volunteer activity, it is important to find the right match. VolunteerMatch partners with non-profit and volunteer organizations as well as select business leaders to make it easier for people to find good causes to connect with. Individuals can search using location, keywords, skills, interests or preferred partners with whom they wish to work. VolunteerMatch even offers Virtual Opportunities which have no set location and can usually be completed from home or using the Internet. This site provides tips for getting started in volunteering and contains stories from other volunteers to help inspire you to action.

Pressed for Time
The Extraordinaries website allows you to “micro-volunteer” for your favorite cause in just a few minutes using your cell phone or personal computer. This site allows you to select an organization, choose a do-good mission, and complete your mission all at the touch of a few keys. Some examples of missions include translating a nonprofit’s Website into a foreign language, recording locations of potholes for municipalities, identifying birds for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and tagging images for the Smithsonian. They call it “anytime anywhere volunteering” and they even offer their own iphone application.

Pay it Forward
The KIND movement makes random acts of kindness easier to do and happen more frequently. The site allows you to print out “KIND cards” that “serve as licenses to do kind acts for people who might otherwise be wary”. Each card has a unique code that can be mapped online allowing users to track how far their kindness travels. Their blog offers tips for overcoming the awkwardness of doing something kind for someone who may be suspicious of your motives and ideas for kind acts to perform.

Doing Good Together
All for Good is an open source application that makes it simple to give back to the community and find and share volunteer activities with friends and family. You can search for volunteer acitivities based on your location and interests and track their progress. You can also share your good works with friends and family and see what they are involved in. When I searched my location I found an opportunity to assist a horticultural therapy program with sales and garden upkeep, provide nursing assistance and non-medical services in an acute hospital program, and to help a children’s program procure food, clothing and hygiene products, just to name a few.

Volunteerism is getting increased coverage in light of the numerous challenging facing the US in recent times. In order to aid in the nation’s recovery, President Obama called upon Americans to make volunteering a way of life. In addition, The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act designated September 11 as a new national day of service. In light of this, the Serve.gov website was created to be an online resource for finding and creating volunteer opportunities in one’s community. You can create and register your own community service project and read or share inspiring stories of volunteerism.

What are your volunteering stories and ideas? Has being a volunteer made a difference in your life or in the life of someone you know? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts. Please also visit my resources website www.kansascitymentalhealth.com for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health issues and concerns.

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