Though the holiday season might make you feel stressed or crazy busy, it can also have another far more desirable effect: It may leave you feeling extra generous. That's right—all that gift-giving and caroling can bring on even more good vibes.
"Being generous isn’t a finite resource," says Alex Korb, Ph.D., neuroscientist and author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. "The more generous you are, the more you feel like you want to be even more generous."
And that's where one of the best ways to give comes into play: volunteering. Helping out is a double whammy: You help others and benefit yourself in the process.
The High You Get From Helping
It’s probably no surprise that lending a hand makes you feel good—after all, even a simple smile can be contagious. "Humans feel best when we feel useful," says Emily Fletcher, founder of Ziva Meditation and gratitude expert. "[With volunteering], the reward is in the act itself—it allows people to feel more present."
And while you've likely read about the benefits of mindfulness, studies suggest volunteering—especially when it's a habit—provides long-lasting benefits. Health benefits of volunteering in the Wisconsin longitudinal study. Piliavin JA, Siegl E. Journal of health and social behavior, 2008, Feb.;48(4):0022-1465. It can make you healthier and even add years to your life. Health benefits of volunteering in the Wisconsin longitudinal study. Piliavin JA, Siegl E. Journal of health and social behavior, 2008, Feb.;48(4):0022-1465.
"Volunteering helps you focus on your positive qualities," Korb says. "Because you're reflecting yourself as being a good person, that can have a self-affirming effect." That type of self-affirmation can domino into other positive changes, Korb says, like eating healthier or smoking less.
And that's not all. Volunteering can be a mental pick-me-up, since it helps reduce anxiety and depression in some people. Volunteering and depression: the role of psychological and social resources in different age groups. Musick MA, Wilson J. Social science & medicine (1982), 2003, Mar.;56(2):0277-9536. "Empathy and acting generously can increase levels of oxytocin," Korb says. And oxytocin, a neurochemical associated with trust and feelings of closeness, may reduce stress and increase feelings of calm.
The key to reaping the benefits is to expect nothing in return. "Motivations matter," Korb says. "If you read this article, and think, 'I will volunteer so I can feel better,' then you have a selfish motivation, and therefore, you are not going to derive the positive benefits." [Editor's note: We're pretty sure our readers are never selfishly motivated.]
At least one study supports this notion too. Those who volunteered to feel good (or for bragging rights) didn’t experience the same good vibe benefits as those who were selflessly motivated. Other research suggests those who benefit most have a positive view of other people. Volunteering predicts health among those who value others: two national studies. Poulin MJ. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 2013, Apr.;33(2):1930-7810.
Your Action Plan
It's easy to volunteer all year—even if you can't make it to a local charity spot. Fletcher suggests thinking about "micro-acts" throughout your day, rather than one big (read: intimidating) goal.
"A good question people can ask themselves is, 'What’s the most pressing need right now? And how do my gifts best serve that need?'" Fletcher says. Maybe it's something small—like volunteering to organize the recycling room in your building. Or maybe staying to help clean up at a party—even though you'd rather just go home. And while it's never too early to start volunteering, studies also suggest benefits only increase with age. Differential benefits of volunteering across the life course. Van Willigen M. The journals of gerontology. Series B, Psychological sciences and social sciences, 2000, Oct.;55(5):1079-5014.
Bottom line: "Take care that your volunteer work is valuable and meaningful," Fletcher says. Leave obligation behind, and the generous act becomes a win-win for all involved.
Originally published December 2011. Updated December 2015.