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Feeling Lost? Help Yourself by Helping Others

Feeling Lost? Help Yourself by Helping Others

Find out why taking steps to make the world a better place can lift your spirits.

Updated on July 7, 2020 at 5:00pm EST.

Like so many of us, Paula Rosenthal, 54, was overcome by a sense of helplessness, stress and anxiety when the world shut down at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So, I called a friend of mine who is the chair of emergency medicine at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills Northwell Health hospital and asked what I could do,” says Rosenthal, who lives on Long Island in New York State. “She mentioned that patients weren’t allowed to have visitors, and they would appreciate get-well cards.”

Rosenthal sprang into action, working with her husband to create Operation Get Well. Together, they recruited a team of volunteers who, as of July 2, have sent more than 3,500 get-well cards to patients in 20 different New York hospitals.

Since the pandemic began, people around the world have not only been facing a public health crisis, but also the loneliness and isolation stemming from lockdown restrictions and social distancing orders—not to mention the financial strain that ensued as local economies ground to a halt amid closures and cancellations.

Since then, protests that have erupted across the United States, resulting from police brutality and racial injustice, have added to feelings of helplessness and emotional distress among Americans of all ages and backgrounds.

The percentage of Americans suffering from anxiety and depression has increased since the pandemic began, jumping to 13.6 percent in April 2020 from 3.9 percent in 2018, according to an April 2020 survey conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which was published in June in JAMA.

Sharecare’s “Flatten the Curve” survey of more than 115,000 respondents estimated a 230 percent increase in levels of worry among Americans during roughly the same time period.

But, like Rosenthal, many people are realizing that one of the best antidotes to feeling helpless is taking action to make the world a better place by volunteering, either virtually or in person.

Finding purpose
A growing body of research shows that by helping others, you help yourself live a longer, healthier and happier life. A June 2020 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests that adults older than 50 who volunteered for at least 100 hours annually lowered their risk of death and developing physical limitations. They also had lower rates of depressive symptoms and hopelessness and were more likely to be physically active. Not surprisingly, those who spent time helping others felt more optimistic and felt a stronger purpose in life.

The study did not find any connection between volunteering and a lower rate of chronic conditions, such as heart disease or hypertension—which makes it all the more interesting that volunteers had a 44 percent lower rate of dying during the four years they were followed over the course of the study.

“We observed that volunteering enhances other health and well-being outcomes including an enhanced sense of purpose in life and physical activity, which are independent pathways through which people might derive physical health benefits, including a reduced risk of mortality,” says the study’s lead author, Eric S. Kim, PhD, a research scientist in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Though the study was conducted before the COVID-19 crisis, Kim says the benefits of volunteering can certainly help in such a time of uncertainty and despair.

“My intuition is that volunteering would produce health and well-being benefits for people who are feeling disconnected due to quarantine and the general state of the world today, because it will help enhance their sense of purpose in life as well as several other psychological protective factors,” Kim explains. Though his study looked at adults over age 50, Kim believes volunteering could bring physical and mental benefits to people of any age.

This study builds on earlier research, which shows that people who volunteer have higher rates of happiness, self-esteem and a stronger sense of control over life. Volunteering has also been found to be particularly helpful for the emotional well-being of older Americans, giving them a stronger sense of purpose in life. This may be especially important for those suffering from the loss of loved ones or friends and those who may have lost their sense of identity after retiring from the workforce.  

As you look for volunteer opportunities, keep this in mind:

Choose a cause that that aligns with your core values. Whether it’s working toward civil rights, volunteering at your place of worship or tutoring at-risk children, choosing a project that is deeply meaningful to you will not only keep you motivated, but may even increase the health benefits, says Kim.

Make a long-term commitment. Jumping in to help out for an hour or two here and there is always welcome, but Kim’s study found that the health and wellness benefits only accrued to those who volunteered more than 100 hours a year, which works out to about two hours a week.

Try going virtual. Of course, staying healthy in the time of a pandemic is the most important factor in choosing how to get involved. But there are many ways to volunteer while social distancing, such as connecting over Zoom with homebound seniors, sewing masks and donating them to homeless organizations or sending get-well cards.

“Once I started Operation Get Well, it not only helped the patients, but it has helped everyone who has participated,” says Rosenthal. “Being able to focus on something so positive during such a dark time in our history has been uplifting for us all.”

Medically reviewed in June 2020.

Sources:
EE McGinty, R Presskreischer, H Han, CL Barry. “Psychological Distress and Loneliness Reported by US Adults in 2018 and April 2020.” JAMA. 2020;324(1):93–94.
PA Thoits, LN Hewitt. “Volunteer work and well-being.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2001;42(2):115-131.
EA Greenfield, NF Marks. “Formal volunteering as a protective factor for older adults' psychological well-being.” The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. 2004;59(5):S258-S264.

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