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Giving Service to Improve Your Mental Health

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By Alicia Cox, MA, AMFT

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” – Mahatma Gandhi

There are many tools we can use to help better our overall mental health, but there is one thing we can do that can better someone else’s life in addition to our own life. This tool is the act of giving service to others. There are many reasons to give service to someone else, but it has been lesser known until recent years that many mental health benefits are associated with volunteer work. Since there are so many health benefits, it is now considered a form of self-care.

When you gives to others, your brain releases chemicals, including dopamine and oxytocin. These chemicals are responsible for brightening your mood and giving you a sense of calm and harmony. When you are experiencing a lot of stress in your life and are having a difficult time managing stress, giving service to a family member, friend, or your community could help improve your mood. It is another tool to add to your mental health toolbox that can help bring your mood back to a more manageable level.

Philanthropy also has some physical benefits. One study found that when a person volunteers on a regular basis, that person’s risk for developing hypertension (high blood pressure) decreases significantly. The same study also found an association between regular volunteer work and increased psychological well-being and physical activity. Both these factors are important for better overall health.

Helping others can also help establish purpose in our lives. It can help us discover our role within our community and help us feel more connected. In addition, it could lead us toward finding something we are passionate about and open new doors for us. I know multiple people who have found new careers they are passionate about from volunteering within their community.

Sometimes it can be difficult to find time to volunteer when you have so many other things going on in your life. There are ways you can give service to others without being part of an organized volunteer group or event. Offer to mow your neighbor’s lawn when you are mowing your own. Bring a friend dinner when they are sick. Volunteer to help strangers load groceries in their car if you notice they need assistance. Little things like these are considered giving service to others, and they are easy tasks for one to complete.

In my personal life, I try to be mindful of how I can give service to others each day. When things are busy, it can be hard to notice little things, but by being in a mindset of giving service, it helps open my eyes to things I can do to help others. Whether it’s opening the door for someone or picking up trash in my community park, there are little things that not only help my community, but also help my well-being and mood.


References

Renter, Elizabeth, “What Generosity Does to Your Brain and Life Expectancy.” U.S. News Health, May 1, 2015, https://health.usnews.com/health-news/health-wellness/articles/2015/05/01/what-generosity-does-to-your-brain-and-life-expectancy. Accessed March 30, 2018.

Sneed, R. S., & Cohen, S. (2013). A prospective study of volunteerism and hypertension risk in older adults. Psychology and Aging, 28(2), 578-586.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0032718. Accessed March 30, 2018.

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Keeping Kids Humble Around The Holidays

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(Photo Credit: Sunny Studio)

By Melanie Ernould, Psy.D.

I have a friend who is divorced and raising a 7-year-old daughter. He and his ex-wife are immersed in a battle to see who can “out fun” the other. While the girl is lovely and sweet, I can’t help but wonder how much entitlement this is building in her. I am the parent of a 3-year-old girl, and I want to raise her to be a person who cares about others more than her own pursuit of fun or entertainment. But I look around my house and see the shear amount of toys she already owns, because she has two doting parents in two separate households, and also several sets of doting grandparents, and I feel a little nervous. My interactions with this friend and his daughter have me thinking about this topic a lot, particularly with the blast of commercialism that we face during the holidays.

I also had a friend who, for her son’s birthday party, requested that guests bring a book to donate rather than gifts. I thought this was a wonderful idea for many reasons, but at the same time, I remember the pure joy and excitement I felt on those few days each year that I got to open a pile of presents just for me. I’m not sure I feel a child should be completely deprived of that experience either. So how do we raise children who get to experience this joy, but also understand exactly how lucky they are to experience it? How do we raise little people who actually enjoy giving to others as much as they enjoy taking for themselves? I’m not sure I can answer that definitively, but it is a continuous dance to figure out the right balance for each individual child.

Here are 6 ways to help keep your child grounded in humility & empathy:

  1. Don’t overdo it with gifts over the holidays. Sometimes when grandparents are involved, this is hard to avoid. Do your best. Carefully evaluate what your child actually needs. Consider more experience-based gifts, such as museum passes or a trip. Check out this Huffington Post blog post for 18 non-toy gift ideas for children.
  2. Consider family activities that are less about manufactured entertainment (think Disneyland) and more about spending quality time bonding and connecting with nature. Go on a hike, bake and cook, or do an art project together. For an excellent resource on ideas that are arranged by season, see Amanda Blake Soule’s The Rhythm of Family: Discovering a Sense of Wonder Through the Seasons.
  3. Simplify your life in general. There are many, many things in our households that we don’t need. We think we need them, but we don’t. Re-evaluate your priorities and whittle down your stuff a bit. Clean out your closets and drawers and have your children help you donate items to charity. Start having a conversation about giving to others, and about the unnecessary possession of stuff. In addition, when you do need something, consider finding it used. I recently read this interesting blog entry about a family that happily simplified their lives.
  4. Model giving behaviors and humility. Apologize often, take responsibility and admit mistakes. As parents, we are our children’s first teachers. And the most effective lessons are through our own actions. Talk with your children about what you do for others such as volunteering and giving to charity. Additionally, when you express empathy to your children, they are more likely to grow up to be empathic individuals themselves. Research shows that parents who model empathic and caring behavior toward their children and others in front of their children are more likely to have children who demonstrate empathy and prosocial attitudes and behavior (Eisenberg-Berg, & Mussen, 1978; McDevitt, Lennon, & Kopriva, 1991; Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, & King, 1979).
  5. Participate in volunteering activities with your family, and make them fun! Experience is also an incredibly effective teacher. We tend to isolate ourselves in our bubbles, ignorant to the plight of others. And in our society, it is easy to do so. Instead of turning a blind eye, expose your children to opportunities to give to those who are less fortunate. According to Wilson (2000), volunteering is associated with positive life-satisfaction, self-esteem, health, educational and occupational achievement, functional ability, and mortality. In addition, youth who volunteer are less likely to engage in problem behaviors such as school truancy and drug abuse.To make the lesson of giving stick, it is important to do this all together as a family and in a way that can be fun for your children. Check out CBS Local’s list of great family volunteer opportunities.
  6. Finally, have frequent conversations with your children about empathy and giving to others. When a conflict arises, help your child understand the position of the other person. In addition, read books together and ask them questions to get them thinking. Many books can be a starting point for a conversation involving perspective taking, but these books deal with the concept of empathy specifically:
  1. Hey, Little Ant (Hoose, Hoose, and Tilley, 1998)
  2. The Berenstain Bears Think of Those in Need (Berenstain & Berenstain, 1999)
  3. Those Shoes (Boelts & Jones, 2009)
  4. Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla (Applegate, 2014)
  5. The Invisible Boy (Ludwig, 2013)
  6. Charlotte’s Web (White, 2006)
  7. Prairie Evers (Airgood, 2012)
  8. Junonia (Henkes, 2011)
  9. Mockingbird (Erkine, 2010)
  10. Each Kindness (Woodson & Lewis, 2012)
  11. To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 2004)

References and Further Reading:

Eisenberg-Berg, N., and Mussen, P. (1978). Empathy and moral development in in adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 14(2), 185-186.

McDevitt, T. M.; Lennon, R.; and Kopriva, R. J. (1991). Adolescents’ perceptions of mothers’ and fathers’ prosocial actions and empathic responses. Youth and Society, 22(3), 387-409.

Wilson, J. (2000). Volunteering. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 215-240.

Zahn-Waxler, C.; Radke-Yarrow, M.; and King, R. A. (1979). Child rearing and children’s prosocial initiations toward victims of distress. Child Development, 50(2), 319-330.

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