We’re all searching for happiness. We pursue passions and buy shiny things and seek out inspiration. But Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi said, “Happiness is the very nature of the Self; happiness and the Self are not different. There is no happiness in any object of the world. We imagine through our ignorance that we derive happiness from objects.”
Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Happiness and service go hand in hand, they are complementary: Seva, or service, generates happiness and happy people are more likely to lend a hand.
As you enter into the season of gratitude, collective joy, and reflection on your personal path, consider how a simple act of service might change your outlook and contribute to the greater good. Consider ways that privilege and oppression show up in your life. Consider ways you already serve in your community and in your life. Consider ways you would you like to serve, for your own interest—and to help others.
In what arenas could volunteering your time, resources, or energy add some oomf to your life? Here are six ways volunteering contributes to happiness.
1. It’s a Good Reminder that You’re Part of Something Bigger than Yourself
It can be so easy to get wrapped up in personal dramas, worries, and to-do lists and forget about the big picture. But taking a step outside yourself and reflecting on your place in the grand scheme can help you feel more connected and give you a greater sense of belonging. And connection and belonging are two key ingredients for overall happiness! Whether it’s participating in trail maintenance on a local hiking trail or helping with the harvest at the community farm, you’ll be reminded that you’re part of something big.
2. It’s a Good Reminder to Be Grateful for All that You Have
Remembering to be grateful for the blessings in your own life can shift your perspective and even your mood.
In Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, author Robert Emmons, Ph.D, explains that gratitude has been show to reduce depression. Even in the face of struggle, sadness, hard times, and fear there is so much to be grateful for. Seeing how someone else lives or showing up to a beach clean-up can help you see that there really is so much to be thankful for in this beautiful world.
3. You Might Actually Help Someone
Helping others is an important element in increasing happiness. For one thing, their gratitude for your help is contagious! Sympathetic joy—the ability to rejoice in the good fortune and happiness of others—is an ability worth practicing. And for another thing, there’s a karmic connection to kindness: if you help someone now, they might help you later. And you’ll be so happy for it!
In her second Secret of Adulthood writing collections, writer Gretchen Rubin says, “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make someone else happy. One of the best ways to make someone else happy is to be happy yourself.” Whether you’re volunteering to help a friend move for two hours or spending your Saturday delivering warm meals to refugee families, your service will benefit others.
4. You’ll Get Involved in Your Community
Getting involved in your community can lend purpose to your life and quell loneliness. Psychology researchers have found that loneliness is a greater health risk than smoking or obesity—and is a predictor of early death.
In Braving The Wilderness, researcher and storyteller Brene Brown writes that the key to building true belonging is “maintaining our belief in inextricable human connection.” Whether you’re tutoring local high school students after school or coaching your niece’s soccer team, being part of a community reminds you that it takes a village and that you are an essential piece.
5. You’ll Spend Time Being Present
When you’re volunteering, you’ll put your phone down (gasp!) and focus on the task at hand, which can help increase happiness. Whether it’s playing with puppies and kittens at the local animal shelter or helping sort donations at the food pantry, your mind will be allowed to de-stress when you concentrate.
New research on mindfulness shows that present-moment awareness increases effective coping mechanisms and ups your stress resilience, which leads to an improved sense of well-being (aka, happiness!).
6. You’ll Practice Compassion
Spending time with someone with the intention to serve—and putting yourself in their shoes—if only for a few hours, can be the first step on the path to compassionate living. When you’re able to see humanity in people you don’t know and the pain in people you find difficult, you’re on the path to enlightenment.
When you practice compassion for others, whether by offering a ride to the neighbor whose car broke down or teaching tap dance to senior citizens, you’ll get practice treating others with kindness. And this practice of compassion—the stirring of the heart in response to pain or suffering—is shown to boost your happiness.
So get out there and volunteer your time! It could be one day a week, an hour a month, or a one-time event. You’re sure to be rewarded with a sense of purpose, gratitude, compassion, connection, joy, belonging, and community. And your neighborhood will be cleaner, friendlier, and more inclusive!