And so continues the A to Z blogging challenge. I had trouble coming up with something for “G”. There are so many good G words that have to do with mental health; gratification, growth, grief, guilt, goals, generalized anxiety, global labeling. I am currently feeling gloomy (another G!), so I thought I’d go with something positive today, Giving.
Do good. Feel good.
Considering that society equates happiness with getting something, it seems strange that I’m telling you giving is going to bring you happiness. Research has shown that people who give time, money or support to others or their community are happier, more satisfied with life and less depressed. This is nothing new. It’s been shown since the 1930s that those who volunteered as teenagers were less likely to become depressed as adults. What is new, is the biochemical findings!
Participant’s brains were monitored by MRI while they were asked to make a decision about donating to charity. Those who chose to donate showed more activity in the mesolimbic system of the brain. This is the reward center for the brain. It is activated in response to rewards, sex and other positive stimuli. In response, oxytocin, aka the love or cuddle hormone is released. This promotes social bonding. Dopamine, an important neurotransmitter for cognition and enjoyment is also released.
In addition to the feel-good chemicals, there are cognitive benefits to giving. In depression and anxiety we tend to be focused on the self. Focusing on the needs of someone else helps to shift our thinking. When helping someone else, you experience compassion and kindness, these feelings push aside the negative thoughts going on in your head. It sounds like fluff, but I have experienced it. I used to look after my cousin’s kids every Friday afternoon to give her a break. She had three little boys at the time, all under 5 years old. Most of the time I felt too tired and miserable to go. The guilt of taking away my cousin’s afternoon off was stronger though, so I went. Once I started to focus on the needs of those little boys, I forgot how much I hated myself. I forgot I was miserable and exhausted. I was focused on their needs and making sure they were having fun. I left at the end of the day feeling better.
There is a time when giving isn’t good. That is when you are already overwhelmed by your duties. One of the social workers I was talking to for a while said that we all have a box inside us. We give from that box, but it can become empty, leaving nothing more to give. You have to refill the box before it gets empty. You do this by having you-time. You need to make time to take care of yourself and have a little fun. It’s hard to “have fun” when you are depressed. Usually you have lost interest in the things you once enjoyed. This was me last year. I was trying to be too many things to too many people and my box was empty. I had no way to refill it because I had lost interest in everything. I wasn’t doing well. Then I decided I was going to draw again. I had stopped drawing for several years at that point and I didn’t really feel like drawing, but I thought it was something I used to like, so it’s a place to start. I began with scribbles which usually resulted in crumpled up balls of paper. I wasn’t getting anywhere with the drawing, but I was having me-time. The me-time helped. Slowly, I started to feel less overwhelmed. I started to draw how I was feeling which resulted in drawings like the ones from yesterday’s post. So I’ve found a way to refill my box. It wasn’t something I wanted to do at first, but making myself do it, gave me time to recharge. Now I am able to give again.
When I talk about giving, I don’t mean you have to build house in Haiti or donate an afternoon to babysitting your cousin’s kids. If you have time to do those things, by all means, do them! Little things count too though. Plant a tree. Give a stranger a smile. Volunteer for a research study. It’s a one-time thing and Psychology is always looking for people to participate in questionnaires and such. You can offer to help family members. I look after my parents’ cats when they are away and sometimes I bake my dad biscotti because I know he loves them. If you aren’t close to your family you can donate. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Give a dollar next time they ask at the grocery store. Find your own little way to spread kindness. At the very least it will give your thoughts somewhere else to go.