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The Surprising Mental Health Benefits of Altruism & Volunteering

Updated: Jan 9


Older Caucasian woman smiling with a younger Caucasian woman, both wearing volunteer shirts, photo is black-and-white
Not only is volunteering good for you mental health, you can also make good friends.

You may not have thought about how altruism and volunteering could benefit your mental health. Nonetheless, it is a great way to feel as low your life matters. It also spreads positivity in the world. In this age of rancor and hatred, it seems more important than ever to make this a year of kindness and civility. We’ve seen a rise in hate crimes, bullying in the schools, and xenophobia that is hard to stomach sometimes. However, we can each be individually responsible for how we conduct our lives and how we want to be in the world.


There is not just a benefit to society in being kind to others; we also stand to gain individually by turning our focus outward and helping our fellow human beings. Some social theorists such as Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin believed that we are hardwired for selfishness, competition, and ruthless egoism.


Interdependence versus independence

However, other theorists state that altruism “flies in the face of” theories that we are programmed genetically to be selfish. Instead is survival of the fittest, we’re just as naturally inclined toward social resilience. Social resilience is defined as “’the capacity to foster, engage in, and sustain positive social relationships and to endure and recover from stressors and social isolation’” (John Cacioppo, quoted in Seligman, 2011, p. 146).


Recent attachment research seems to suggest that we are better together, not striving for superiority and power. We all benefit from being interdependent rather than solely independent. Martin Seligman argues that we survive as humans because we work together and combine our strengths and resources to help one another. Seligman gives further examples in the animal and insect kingdom of how working cooperatively both productivity and survival.


How will altruism and volunteering benefit your mental health?

There is evidence that volunteering can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Being kind to others takes the focus off of one’s own inner strife, as well as develops skills and social networks that buffer stress. In addition, volunteering and kindness engage a person in meaningful activity, which can be described as a “flow” state.


Flow is described as “the experience of working at full capacity,” in which a person uses challenge and skill to accomplish something that is rewarding at a deeper level than immediate gratification (Peterson, 2006, page 67). In a flow state, we can lose track of time because we are so absorbed in what we’re doing; athletes describe it as being “in the zone.”

Of course, when you’re feeling depressed or anxious, you naturally want to avoid other people. Isolation feels safer and easier when you’re depressed or anxious. This can also be true if you have PTSD and have difficulty trusting others. There’s a strong tendency to get trapped in inaction and avoidance.


However, if you just give in to isolation and inactivity, depression and anxiety win. Dr. Milton Erickson knew this and, in his therapy and hypnosis, Erickson often prescribed action as a way to overcome depression. Cognitive behaviorists refer to this principle as behavioral activation.


For example, once Dr. Erickson helped a wealthy lady who was depressed overcome her isolation by prescribing altruism to the members of her church. He told her to get some potting soil and to give African violets to all the members of her church for every major life event. Cultivating the African violets was something that she had already shown interested before she became depressed.


It was a very time-consuming activity, one that required her to absorb her attention in something active. It also directed her efforts outside of herself, because she was doing it for her fellow congregants. This activity not only increased her social interaction, but engaged her in an activity that she loved (caring for and raising flowers).


Instead of just keeping all of her flowers for herself, she reached out and blessed her community with kindness and generosity. They repaid her favor with their love and appreciation. This is one small example of how you can be involved with other people in an informal, yet meaningful way.


African-American young woman with nose ring with her arms around two African-American children. A woman has a volunteer gray shirt with a teal hoodie
Everyone can use some help from a friendly volunteer.


What if you don’t have time for volunteering and altruism?

Some people may say, “I don’t have the time for this” or “I don’t have the energy.” If you consider the experience of being depressed or anxious, and you consider how exhausting it is to feel fear, self-loathing, and concoct negative scenarios from the past or future, you might argue that you already have plenty of energy that is being directed at self-sabotaging pursuits.


How would you use that energy if it weren’t engaged in these negative pursuits? You don’t necessarily have to volunteer 40 to 100 hours per year, although that can certainly boost the positive effects of volunteering. Instead, you might consider small ways that you can help people you know already. Maybe someone just needs a phone call and to know that someone cares about them. Perhaps an elderly or disabled person in the neighborhood needs help with housework or yard work.


There are many ways to reach out beyond yourself and to be kind, so much so that you might find yourself enjoying it more and more. I encourage you to think of ways to help other people, or even animals or the environment. Ultimately, they are all part of the web of existence and our actions come back to us and sometimes unexpected ways. If you’re struggling with finding the energy to overcome depression or anxiety, please call me at 661-233-6771.


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