Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
Giving feels good. We’ve all experienced that high from doing something good: donating our used books to the library, feeding the homeless at the soup kitchen, walking for AIDS or another cause, calling or visiting an older relative, or giving someone a very personal and meaningful gift that they appreciated.
According to sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson of the Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, Americans who volunteer an average of 5.8 hours per month describe themselves as “very happy,” while those who volunteer 0.6 hours say they are unhappy.
In their book The Paradox of Generosity, they also say that Americans who donate more than 10 percent of their incomes have lower depression rates than those who don’t.
But you don’t have to spend a year of your life on a mission trip or give half of our paycheck to a charity in order to give. There are so many ways to give.
Here are some, inspired by Jennifer Iacovelli’s book Simple Giving: Easy Ways to Give Every Day:
1. Spend Money on Others
Even a small gesture like buying someone a gum ball or a mint can increase your sense of happiness. A 2008 article published in Science reported on research done by social psychologist Liz Dunn of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
She and her colleagues surveyed more than 600 Americans and found that those who spent money on others experienced a greater level of happiness and satisfaction rather than those who spent money on themselves.
In a second research project, Dunn’s team questioned 16 employees in line for a company bonus of $3,000 to $8,000 about their level of happiness. After they got the bonus, Dunn’s team went back to the employees and talked to them again about how happy they felt, as well as how they spent the money. The size of the bonus didn’t determine their level of happiness — but the amount spent on others or given to charity did correlate with happiness levels.
2. Spend Time with Others
Spending time with someone can be just as or more meaningful as spending money on him or her.
In her book, Iacovelli mentions a study where $10 Starbucks cards were handed out in four different ways. People were told to:
- Give the card to someone else.
- Take someone out for coffee using the card.
- Get coffee alone.
- Go for coffee with a friend but spend the gift certificate on themselves.
The group of participants who spent the gift card on someone else while spending time with that person experienced the highest happiness levels.
Our time is often worth more than our money these days, and spending it on someone with nothing to gain for ourselves (like networking opportunities) is a beautiful gift.
3. Volunteer … Untraditionally
I don’t think you need to volunteer in the traditional sense of spending several hours a week at a program or institution to reap the benefits of doing good.
Volunteering can mean visiting an elderly neighbor or running an errand for a friend. It can mean doing tax returns for a relative or walking your mom’s dog.
For persons who suffer from chronic pain and depression, volunteering (however you chose to do it) can be an important part of recovery. According to a study published in 2002 in Pain Management Nursing, nurses suffering from chronic pain experienced declines in their pain intensity and decreased levels of disability and depression when they served as peer volunteers for others also suffering from chronic pain.
“Despite encountering challenges, the rewards of this altruistic endeavor outweighed any frustrations experienced by volunteers with chronic pain,” says the abstract.
4. Be Emotionally Available
In The Paradox of Generosity, Smith and Davidson saythat another way we can give is in our relationships — by being emotionally available, generous, and hospitable.
And it has a health benefit. Those who are more giving in relationships are more likely to be in excellent health (48 percent) than those who are not (31 percent), they write.
This is perhaps the most challenging form of giving — to always be there (mind, body, and spirit) — for our spouse, our kids, our parents. When we’re sincere in this form of giving, it pays huge dividends in our lives.
5. Perform Acts of Kindness
I listed some acts of kindness under volunteering because I believe almost any kind of spending time with others is a form of volunteering that can boost your mood.
You can perform an act of kindness almost anywhere and at anytime. You can be as creative and involved as you want — devoting days to an elaborate project, or doing good in just a few seconds. Here are some acts of kindness I’m thinking of, but there are so many!
- Holding open a door for someone
- Letting someone with a few items cut in front of you at the grocery
- Smiling at a stranger and saying hello
- Counseling a friend
- Picking up your neighbor’s newspaper
- Calling an older, lonely person to chat
- Bringing your dog to a retirement home for folks to pet
- Helping an elderly person to her car
- Allowing a car to cut in front of you in traffic
6. Compliment Someone
The act of kindness I enjoy the most is complimenting people. It’s so easy, doesn’t cost anything, and always lifts my mood.
I will compliment a complete stranger on her blouse; tell the waitress she has a beautiful smile; praise the cashier at the grocery for being really fast; and commend the studious girl in my carpool for her discipline and conscientiousness. Complimenting someone takes me out of myself for a minute, which is often a relief. By making someone else feel good about themselves, I automatically feel better about myself.
7. Make Someone Laugh
Making someone laugh is the most fun way of giving and one of the very best gifts you can offer someone. As I’ve said before, laughing is one of the most potent antidepressants. It’s almost impossible to be anxious and fearful when you’re laughing.
Charlie Chaplain once said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.” So if I can get someone to laugh — even a slight cackle — then I’m helping him or her to relieve the pain or pressure they carry. And in the process, I am helping to relieve mine as well.
“Stories are a communal currency of humanity,” writes Tahir Shah in Arabian Nights.
By telling your story, you are giving someone an intimate part of yourself. It’s no small gesture of generosity. We can tell our stories formally, in blogs and books and presentations. But most of the time, we tell our stories in coffee shops and hospital waiting rooms, at gyms and in churches, in grocery store aisles, and at support group meetings.
Telling your story can be immensely rewarding when it’s done sincerely and with the right person. Sometimes it can even be life-saving for you or for the person hearing your testimony.
Join Project Hope & Beyond, a depression support group.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.