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Volunteering can be good for both mind and body

The holiday season may inspire you to volunteer your time and talent to a deserving cause or person. And it’s a gift that will come right back to you. Science backs the mood-boosting benefits of being of service to others.

“We grow up learning that it’s better to give than to receive, and the evidence shows that it’s actually healthy for us,” said Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

EMOTIONAL BENEFITS

You reap a number of emotional rewards when volunteering. The social interaction makes you feel connected to others, which staves off loneliness and depression.

“When you’re depressed, you pay close attention to all of your physical and emotional aches and pains, which makes you feel worse. If you can let go of that inward focus by volunteering and focusing on others, you’ll likely feel better,” Miller said.

Volunteering also makes you feel effective, because you’re making a difference in people’s lives. It boosts your self-esteem, because you’re living up to your idea of the best version of yourself. Feeling good about yourself can lift your mood.

PHYSICAL BENEFITS

We don’t have biological proof that volunteering improves your health. However, we do have evidence that volunteering is associated with healthy outcomes, such as lower blood pressure, according to a study published last year in Psychology and Aging, and also less depression, greater well-being, and a 22 percent reduction in the risk of dying, according to a review of 40 studies published in BMCPublic Health in 2013. Miller speculated that these benefits come from lower stress levels.

There was even a study in 2012, in Archives of General Psychiatry, that found older people who engage in meaningful and purposeful activity – such as volunteering – tend to have better thinking skills in old age.

IT’S NOT COMPLICATED

It’s unclear exactly how much time you’d have to volunteer to boost your health. Studies have noted benefits from 100 to 200 hours per year. That’s as little as two hours per week.

But you don’t have to sign up with an organization to enjoy the rewards of service to others.

“It’s not just about giving people things or helping out somewhere. It’s about being there for someone, visiting someone in a hospital, sending a card to say hello, or stopping by and offering support when there’s a major life event,” Miller said. And remember that even small gestures will foster a spirit of generosity, which will make you feel good and bring you in contact with people.

Not sure where to start? Help a friend in need, be kind to a stranger, or work with a group that you find interesting.

There are many ways to make a difference in someone’s life. Maybe you’d like to do something nice for a friend, or lend your time and expertise to a local group. But don’t offer your service with a goal of getting something back from someone.

“When you’re being generous with others, it inclines people to be generous in return. But don’t expect people to give back in kind. Don’t keep score. Give freely,” Miller said.

A good place to start is in your own social circle. Pass on a book you’ve enjoyed. Babysit. Offer to run an errand for a friend in need. Visit someone in a nursing home.

You don’t have to know a person to be of service. Give away extra coupons at a grocery store. Donate items you no longer need. Drop off your old magazines at a senior center or retirement home. Hold a door open for someone. Give a sincere compliment. Write a letter to a soldier overseas – call your local Veterans of Foreign Wars post for suggestions on getting started.

If you’d like to volunteer with an organization, you can simply call the one that interests you and inquire about opportunities. Consider groups such as animal shelters, food pantries, the Boys and Girls clubs, libraries, museums, the American Red Cross, retirement homes, churches and synagogues, Meals on Wheels, or the United Way.

Check your schedule to determine how much time you’re willing to volunteer and which days of the week work best for you. Visit the organization before you commit. See if its mission is meaningful to you. Talk to current volunteers to find out what it’s really like to donate your time to that group.