Depression is now among the most commonly diagnosed illnesses worldwide and poses a massive public health threat in terms of lost productivity, unhealthy social relationships, and general pain and suffering. But in the media frenzy about depression, low-level unhappiness, boredom, and frustration—occasionally referred to as ennui—are often neglected. Ennui can make you feel like you’re trapped in your own life, with little hope of excitement or gratification, and it can also feel a lot like depression. Doing good things for others, including volunteer work, financial donations, or even simply listening to a friend talk about her problems, can elevate your mood and help you feel more focused and purposeful. Here’s why doing good deeds really can work to help you feel better.
Volunteer work that gets you moving provides you with much-needed exercise. Exercise releases endorphins that can elevate your mood long after the exercise is over. But it’s not just the exercise that helps. Social volunteer activities that encourage you to interact with and support others can help you develop a sense of camaraderie and team spirit. This may also release mood-elevating endorphins that can help pull you out of your funk.
High unemployment and even higher underemployment have caused many people to feel somewhat useless. Even for those with great jobs, we live in a service economy where most people don’t directly produce a product, and many of us don’t do work that is directly correlated with helping other people. For those with a strong social conscience, this situation can become depressing. Volunteer work reminds you that your paid work is not the sum total of your identity and provides you with an opportunity to help people you might not otherwise have a connection with. When we feel useful to others, this can result in a net gain in self-esteem.
Learning New Skills
Many of us have an unrealized dream, a skill we never mastered, or a class we’ve been dying to take. You often have a better chance of learning a new skill when you’re willing to work for free. Love animals? Try wildlife rehabilitation. Wish you’d become a social worker? Try volunteering with foster children. Dying to learn computer programming? Try teaching computer literacy to the elderly and homeless. Volunteering gives you the opportunity to explore diverse interests, have new experiences and—in some cases—gain skills that may help you in your job. This can help your life feel more purposeful and release you from the clutches of chronic frustration.
In a stressful, pressure-filled world, it’s easy to forget that many people go to bed hungry, afraid, or alone every night. Volunteer work can serve as a powerful reminder that your life is not nearly as bad as you think it is. Even better, you may witness people living in dire circumstances who are truly happy. Learn what you can from them about being happy in spite of bad circumstances and finding something good even during dark times.
Volunteer work gets you out of the house and forces you to interact with a variety of people. This can result in new friendships and increased understanding of different perspectives. You may even realize that you’re not the only person struggling to find meaning in an increasingly hostile world, and this sense of unity can help you feel less depressed.
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