The summer after graduating from college I fell into a depression, and I don’t know why. It was not in response to anything, it was just…I don’t know. I was just depressed. My mother gave me a Dale Carnegie book titled How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. I didn’t have much energy or desire to do much anything else, including hold down a job. So, I read the book. And I’m glad I did because I learned a lesson in there that changed my life forever.
Carnegie suggested that the way to overcome your depression is to help others who are worse off than you. Throw yourself into a cause that can use your help, a cause that you care about. By doing charitable acts, you know you are doing something useful, which in turn gives you a good feeling about yourself, and in the process, you forget about your depression.
Now, was the book a panacea for me? Hardly. Did it cure my depression? Perhaps some, but certainly not completely. It would be great if it did, but I still needed to see a traditional therapist for that. Believing that merely doing charity work would cure depression is naïve and overly simplistic, and neither Carnegie nor I is suggesting that this alone is a substitute for seeking modern mental healthcare. But there is something to this old-fashioned (originally published in 1948) notion of helping yourself by helping others. And for me, decades later, it still works.
About that “helping others” part. There are plenty of charities out there that can use help. Your help. Perhaps helping at a local food pantry, mentoring or tutoring students (children and adults) in a subject or field in which you’re an expert, becoming a Big Brother/Big Sister, volunteering at a local library or place of worship, participating in fundraisers for a particular medical cause, the choices are (sadly) endless.
My wife and I enjoy helping the animal shelters in our area because we love pets. We also have participated in walk-a-thons to help raise funding and awareness to fight breast cancer and heart disease. Several years ago, I had my head shaved for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation to help pediatric cancer patients. (I haven’t done it since because, well, Father Time has become my barber. So we attend the fundraisers and drink beer instead.) We were once volunteer bartenders at a fundraiser for The Bridge Youth & Family Services, a shelter for wayward children and families.
I drive for Meals on Wheels twice a month. Just 60-90 minutes is all it takes. Each stop elicits a two-way smile. When my route is complete, on the way home I’m comforted knowing that because of my small sacrifice some housebound seniors will be able to eat. My community is a better place. Because of me. I did that. It’s a nice feeling.
There are countless opportunities out there, but volunteering is easier when it’s a cause close to your heart. Find something that you care deeply, or even feel passionately, about and sink some time and energy into it. You will find your efforts pay off not only to those you’re helping, but also to yourself. There is a certain feeling you get when you lose yourself in something or someone that needs your help. By stepping outside yourself, you’re helping inside yourself.
All too often in this look-at-me, social media age, we are looking for validation from others. But volunteer your time, and you will find a tingling satisfaction within that you can’t get from a million Likes or retweets.
Help those in need. Do it for them, do it for yourself. How’s that for a win-win?