How donating to a charity may boost mental health
It’s been a rough year. Given all that’s been thrown at us in the last trip around the sun, chances are your mental health could use a boost.
I’ll admit it – I’m struggling. I’m a military spouse living in a location I didn’t choose, prepping for another move while trying to balance a full-time job and caring for a rambunctious four-year-old. I’ve been told I’m not essential more times this year than one should hear in a lifetime. It’s okay to admit you’re not okay. I’m right there with you, grasping at straws for new ideas to get through the next several months with a shred of normalcy.
This isn’t where I’m going to tell you that it could be so much worse. Instead, let’s talk about a way to show yourself a little love that also helps the community at large: giving back to others. Make it your intention to get involved in the community, donate to your favorite charity or provide social support to others. Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” You know what? He was onto something.
It turns out, the warm fuzzies of gift-giving apply to giving to charity, too. And those acts of kindness may even have a biological benefit. According to studies, when we engage in gift-giving behaviors, including volunteering and giving to charities, our brains secrete serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. Essentially, giving to charity can provide a boost to our physical and mental health.
A brief chemistry refresher
Serotonin helps to stabilize our mood, reduce depression, create feelings of happiness and well-being. It even helps to naturally regulate anxiety, as well as aid in sleep, eating and digestion.
Increased levels of oxytocin can influence feelings of trust, safety, generosity, social bonding and connectedness. Oxytocin is controlled by a positive feedback mechanism in our bodies that stimulates the release of more oxytocin and can help trigger compassion for ourselves and for others.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that acts as a chemical messenger in our bodies; boosting our mood, providing motivation and causing us to seek out ideas, information and pleasure. It’s a feel-good chemical that our brain releases as a part of our body’s reward system. Once we’ve triggered a little dopamine, our bodies want more.
The helper’s high
As multiple reports have confirmed, selfless service to others triggers positive emotions and sensations, called the “helper’s high.” This biochemical response is reflected in multiple positive changes within our body chemistry. It also encourages us to want to repeat those behaviors. Associated health benefits may even include:
- Decreased stress levels
- Lowered blood pressure
- Increased self-esteem
- Longer life
- Greater happiness and overall satisfaction
Another of the findings confirmed in these studies is that even thinking about donating to charity can activate the same part of the brain as the act of giving itself. Begin planning a volunteer activity; gather up items to donate and stash away a little cash to contribute. Inspire others to join your challenge to incorporate random acts of kindness into your weekly routine.
If you’re looking for a strategy to enhance your mental health, start by cultivating altruism. Get a jumpstart on taking care of yourself by finding a local BBB Accredited Charity nearest to your heart. (Find a list of nationally-accredited charities, here.) Trust that when you donate to a charity accredited by Better Business Bureau, your gift will be used in accordance with high standards of ethics and accountability.
Note: While supporting a local charity may be a helpful self-care practice, please seek out a mental health professional if you or a loved one need the help of more than just warm fuzzies.