Image of two individuals with trash bags picking up litter off of the beach. Both are dressed in warm clothing and are wearing gloves.

Is Doing Good Good for You?: The Effects of Philanthropy and Giving on Mental Health

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

The end of the year can be a time of stress for many. Spending time with family, while joyful for some, can still carry its own challenges and complications. The holidays can be quite loaded, and planning for the holidays can bring up fears, sadness, and feelings of being overwhelmed. But for many of us, the holidays are also when we feel prompted to reflect on our own good fortune and to consider how we can give to others. Thanksgiving, a problematic holiday at best, has been rebranded as a day of gratitude and giving. And it wouldn’t be Christmas without the Salvation Army red kettles all around town. So, as we wind down 2021, let’s consider the impact that giving to others can have on your mental health.

 You may have noticed that you feel lighter, happier, and just altogether better after giving to charity. Or perhaps you notice a little extra skip in your step after a day of volunteering. Even just gift giving has been known to fill people with the warm and fuzzies. Where does this feeling come from? 

 As it happens, our brains are hardwired for giving and generosity! When we engage in charitable or philanthropic acts, studies show that our brains release serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin (in other words, “feel good” chemicals), which come together to form what’s known as the “helper’s high”. Social scientists and anthropologists suggest that this is nature’s way of getting people to help people in their community. The helper’s high can be as addictive as any other, so it’s not unusual for folks to want to continue giving back after experiencing these positive feelings.

But doing good doesn’t only make us feel good, it also does the body good. People who regularly volunteer and give back tend to have lower stress levels, lower blood pressure, better health outcomes, and even longer lives. In fact, the act of giving has been shown to result in decreased activity in the amygdala, the part of your brain that gets activated whenever you’re experiencing stress or anxiety. All of that is to say that when you’re giving, you’re actively mitigating the impacts of stress and anxiety. You may also be increasing your lifespan; according to a 2013 study that focused on adults over 50, those who regularly volunteered were 40% less likely to develop hypertension than those who did not engage in philanthropy. And an 8 year study conducted by Stanford University found that subjects who volunteered even just occasionally were 25% less likely to die than subjects who did not!

Finally, and most significantly, by finding routine ways to give back, those who experience depression could potentially see an alleviation of their symptoms. So much of the world right now seems out of control with no signs of settling any time soon. For many, but especially those who experience depression, it can be difficult to feel like they have purpose or any way to effect change. We all want to feel like we’re making a contribution to the world around us and by giving back we are confronted with the fact that we are able to make an impact and that our lives do, in fact, have value. In this way, engaging in philanthropic acts can also serve to boost our self-esteem and self-image. 

You may not be surprised to read any of the above. Perhaps you already knew that giving to others had all these benefits. But when it comes to getting started, you feel overwhelmed and unmotivated. Many of us are struggling to get from one day to the next, so the idea of taking on yet another task or responsibility can easily feel like too much. You should know that this feeling of being overwhelmed by the idea of giving or struggling to get motivated to give is more common than you think.

If you are wrestling with these feelings, it may be useful to shift your thinking around giving from something we should or are obligated to do, to something we want to do as a means of self-care. Because we are more likely to experience many or all of these positive benefits when we give of ourselves (happier, less stressed, more positive), giving could be viewed as simply another way to refill our cups and tend to our mental and emotional health. 

 Giving back is also contagious. When we engage in charitable acts, we are also encouraging others to get involved as well – even without explicitly saying something. Seeing someone give prompts others to give – like dominos. 

So where do you get started? Well, there are many ways to contribute to and give back to our communities. Contrary to popular belief, philanthropy is not exclusive to large monetary gifts like those of Mackenzie Scott, for example (although her philanthropic works are stellar). There are so many organizations and charities to get involved with in your neighborhood that would require nothing of you but your time. 

 The websites Idealist, L.A. Works and VolunteerMatch are great places to begin looking, but even investigating what volunteer opportunities the local chapter of your favorite non-profit may offer can be a good starting point. Consider what you value and what type of volunteering you are interested in and would find pleasurable. Here are some examples: 

  •       If you are not a people person but animals have a special place in your heart, perhaps volunteering at a local animal shelter would be fulfilling. 
  •       If you need physical activity, maybe Habitat for Humanity or a beach clean up could be aligned with both your needs and with your values.
  •       If your major concern is currently the environment, there are a number of nonprofits focused on tangible ways of creating change. Heal the Bay, Friends of the LA River, and Tree People are all options to explore.
  •       If you are moved to support your unhoused neighbors, there are many opportunities to advocate and volunteer. Organizations in Los Angeles include the Downtown Women’s Center and Los Angeles Mission.
  •       If working with children is what’s aligned with your values, 826LA is a Los Angeles Based non-profit that serves students. And there are even cuddler programs, where you volunteer to cuddle babies in the NICU, such as the one at Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital. 

 Additionally, if going through an established organization doesn’t produce the opportunities you are looking for, that’s okay! All that you really need in order to give back is the will to do so. Take a trash bag and a pair of gloves with you when you go on a walk and pick up the litter you see in your community. You would be surprised how much you can do in a short period of time. By simply incorporating this into a pre-existing daily ritual, an already enjoyable activity can become a way to give back as well.   

Even something as simple as putting together brown bag care packages with toiletries and essentials for the unhoused people in your neighborhood is enough to make a difference. You can amplify the impact and establish or deepen connections with friends or neighbors by inviting them to join you in this activity in a park or community setting.  It can be a nice way to spend an afternoon and perhaps connect with someone else in a comfortable way!

 If you don’t have much free time but you do have unwanted or unused items that you know could be put to good use, there are seemingly endless donation centers all over the city where you can take your things. There are even mobile donation boxes throughout Los Angeles, so if you’re not able to make it to a specific center then you can always keep a box of items in the trunk of your car for whenever you spot one! 

 And remember, giving does not necessarily need to be done through a charity, and it can be done on the smallest or most personal scale. If you have a friend going through a hard time, dropping off food, a note, or just calling them matters. If you have a neighbor who is recovering from an illness, you can do their grocery shopping for them. There are ways to give to others all around us. As we focus on our outside worlds and how we can offer support, we are changing the way we engage with the world and with the people around us.

Finally, if you want to get involved and you aren’t able to donate time or goods, but you can contribute financially, then by all means do so. Consider how much you have and how much you can comfortably give and do so. However you choose to give back, take care to remember that there is no one way of giving is better or more impactful than the other. What matters is the intent and the follow through.

There has been so much attention on self-care in recent years and we (hopefully) receive daily reminders to take care of ourselves and make sure that our needs are being met as this is necessary in order to continue managing everything on our plates. Giving to others both serves as self-care and other-care. Additionally, it can offer us opportunities to connect socially and enhance our relationship to ourselves and to others. For example, giving back can include giving of one’s time and emotional energy by checking in on friends and loved ones. These past couple of years have been challenging for all of us and one way to build community and a system of support is to do what we can to help one another, even if that just means texting that friend you know is struggling. Also, in case you needed another reason to call your grandma, studies have shown that older adults, in particular, are likely to greatly benefit from this type of support and it has had positive impacts on their health outcomes throughout the course of the pandemic.

In addition to the pandemic, we are living through an unprecedented time of intersecting crises, two of which happen to be mental health and poverty. If you or your loved ones have been struggling with depression throughout the pandemic, why not see if you can feed two birds with one scone by getting involved in some charitable works this holiday season? We could all put more effort into looking out for one another, and in taking time to lift up those less fortunate, we will be raising our spirits as well. 

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