Homeless. Unemployed. Hungry. Single parent, homeless. Veteran unemployed. Will work for food.
Please help me.
We see these words written on pieces of ripped up cardboard boxes, held in the hands or lying by the tired bodies of the most destitute of our fellow man. They’re in the largest and busiest of cities, between the never-ending congestion of cars in the streets and pedestrians along the sidewalks: men, women or children sitting at the base of tall buildings or lying on the sidewalks next to lamp posts, covered in whatever they can find to protect against the weather. We see them sleeping on park benches or walking along the country road of small rural communities, carrying their life’s belongings in sacks over their shoulder or in shopping carts.
Whether it’s complete strangers living on the streets to survive, people struggling within our own community, our inner circle or our own families, our world is never in short supply of people in dire situations. But many of us today feel overly stressed or too busy to worry about helping others, as we try to maintain focus of taking care of ourselves and our own families, or we say we’ll dedicate some of our spare time to good deeds and helping others.
Other times, when we come across these unfortunate souls while living our own lives, we may feel fear, suspicion, sorrow, empathy or contempt as we pass by, turning our eyes away to snuff out or avoid those feelings.
But when we do the exact opposite by turning to those who need help, it comes with tremendously positive returns for your own personal health. Whether it’s being there for someone when they need someone to talk to, bringing gifts to children in the hospital, dropping cash in a homeless person’s cup or joining the Peace Corps, performing acts of kindness has proven to be a two way street.
According to the Mental Health Foundation in the U.K., doing good does you good. We know the good feeling we experience when we extend a helping hand or do some form of charitable act. But research shows that helping others is actually beneficial for your own mental and physical health, aiding in reducing stress and depressive symptoms while improving your morale, self-esteem, happiness and overall emotional wellbeing.
In the Mental Health Foundation’s 2012 report, “Doing Good: Altruism and well being in an age of austerity,” functional MRI scans showed that altruistic behaviors–acting in the interest of someone else–activated the brain’s mesolimbic reward system, an area that is activated when we are rewarded, implying that such behavior may give us a euphoric physical sensation, or a ‘helper’s high,’ which can improve emotional well being and reduce stress in the long term.
A poll conducted by the foundation also showed that, of 2,037 people, 80% agreed that being kind has a positive influence on their own health, and 87% percentage said that they felt good after being kind, adopting a positive self-identity as a ‘good’ person. Reasons for this include increased social support and encouragement to lead physically active lifestyles. Doing so also distracts from one’s own problems and engages them in meaningful activity.
Volunteering can also be a great health benefit. As our world is never in short supply of people down on their luck who need help, there is no shortage of opportunities to bring love and comfort to their lives. Volunteerism can be your means of helping them improve their well being and longevity as well as yours.
Volunteering as an adult is more common in people who either work part-time or who are retired. Socially isolated older adults gain most from volunteering as it helps improve mood and confidence, reduces isolation and helps give them a sense of purpose. Younger people, such as students, also benefit greatly from volunteerism, as the experience helps them develop higher future aspirations, self-esteem and motivation toward school work than non-volunteers.
The Knights of Columbus (KOC) is one of the top organizations that generate and provide assistance and opportunities who struggle for or are without the means to do so themselves. You’ve probably seen them during their Intellectual Disability Drive, where they meet and greet people outside different restaurants, stores and churches wearing their yellow vests and holding large coffee cans collecting donations for The Arc and the Special Olympics. Many KOC councils throughout the United States organize and provide other services to their community’s poor and impoverished. Council 5561 in Warrenton, Virginia, hosts a variety of events throughout the year to help fund their charitable efforts, which include helping families enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas by providing food baskets. They have even hosted a Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving Day.
“The thanks we receive are nice,” said Seth McQuillan of New Jersey. “During these types of activities we receive a lot of ‘attaboys’ and ‘thanks for what you do.’”
McQuillan is a Past Grand Knight (PGK) who has been with the Knights of Columbus Council 5730 in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, for about six years.
In addition to the Intellectual Disabilities Drive, his council also hosts a rose sale that funds Several Sources Shelters, a home for unwed mothers in New Jersey that was featured in the film, Gimme Shelter. The council also presents the Shield Award to first responders and members of the local police, fire and rescue departments every year, and coordinates with St. Bartholomew Academy students in writing letters of encouragement to seminarians from their archdiocese.
Their most significant event is “Coats for Kids.” The parishioners from both St. Bartholomew and Immaculate Heart of Mary churches in Scotch Plains dig deep to generate more than $11,000 towards purchasing $20 coats for kids.
“The thanks that we receive are nice,” said McQuillan. “When those thanks are from the ultimate recipient, it is even more special. Most of the kids that receive the coats have never had a new garment. The coats are all brand new and have tags. The smiles on their faces are brilliant. One smile makes it all worthwhile.”
As we focus on providing and caring for ourselves and our own families, taking time out of our already busy lives to volunteer and help complete strangers may seem like less of a priority with little to no return. But when someone comes to you pleading for your guidance, or you pass by an old lady struggling with handling groceries or you see someone lying by the lamp post, try to take that time to the walk that two-way street of caring for yourself by caring for another.
Robotham, Dan and Isabella Goldie, Lauren Chakkalackal, Chris White, Kirsten Morgan and Dr Eva Cyhlarova. “Doing Good? Altruism and well being in an age of austerity”. London, England: Mental Health Foundation, 2012. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/doing-good-altruism-and-wellbeing-age-austerity
Nordstrom, Todd. “Science Says Kindness Can Make You a Better Leader. Here Are 3 Reasons”. Inc.com, June 4th, 2018. https://www.inc.com/todd-nordstrom/research-says-kindness-can-make-you-a-better-leader-here-are-3-reasons-why.html
“Does Charitable Activity Help Improve Mental Health?”. Vantagepointrecovery.com. Date accessed, May 3rd 2019. https://vantagepointrecovery.com/giving-back-improves-mental-health/
Stossel, John. “Real Charity”. Creators.com, December 4th, 2013. https://www.creators.com/read/john-stossel/12/13/real-charity
Macmillan, Amanda“Being Generous Really Does Make You Happier”. Time.com. July 14th 2017. https://time.com/4857777/generosity-happiness-brain/