The experience of feeling connected and valued feels wonderful! The experience of feeling socially isolated and left out – not so much! It feels sad and threatening. My sense is that part of the benefit of giving to others is that it puts our own story in perspective and experience that we have something valuable to contribute.
There is good science on the benefits of connection. Brigham Young Study. As human beings, we have a survival level need to belong. When our experience in life has left us with social anxiety and fear of being hurt, we naturally pull back to protect ourselves. This leads to further isolation. We aren’t being hurt but we are missing opportunities to experience the benefits of reaching out and connecting with other people.
In my experience, when I give to others, I receive amazing gifts. I volunteer to guide a daily, free, online meditation group. I look forward to this half hour every morning and to opening the Zoom meeting to see people’s names and faces. Many are familiar and some are new to me. We have formed a group, a safe place to share an experience of depth and knowing ourselves. Because I made a commitment, I show up every single day for a half hour breathing, relaxation and inquiry. This is also a blessing in my own meditation practice.
I experience deep satisfaction in knowing that volunteering my time and presence in this way is helpful in other people’s lives, both those who attend in person and the 55,000 views of these practices on my YouTube channel. It has helped me grow as a meditation teacher and helped grow my business. It has become a wonderful anchor to presence.
Everyone has something to offer and ways to give. A lot of this is informal, like taking a neighbor to a medical appointment, helping a child read, being a snow angel or visiting at a local seniors home. When we feel down and stuck, reaching out to someone else, hearing their story and helping ease their suffering helps us feel better too!
Volunteering can also ease social anxiety. I feel more comfortable having a purpose and a reason to be somewhere. Selling tickets at the door of an event creates opportunities to interact with other volunteers and a reason to talk with participants. Teaching breathing and yoga at a women’s shelter had its own flow and structure.
Trauma and a lack of meaning and fulfillment underlie a lot of our suffering. Find something you care about and volunteer your time and energy to making it better. Through the 80’s and 90’s I was a passionate activist around feminism, AIDS and LGBTQ2 rights. It provided me with so many opportunities to grow as a person and to discover and learn new skills: organizing events, grant writing, public speaking, media interviews, and the deep satisfaction of helping change the world!
Now researchers have discovered that, in addition to mental health benefits of feeling more connected, there are physical health benefits too. Harvard Medical article.
Not quite convinced? Maybe this works for other people but you can’t see yourself doing it? Sometimes we have core deficiency beliefs about the value of what we could bring to someone else. Or you may feel overwhelmed and exhausted and not be able to imagine where you could find the energy for giving. Have you ever come home tired from your office job and flopped on the couch to watch tv all night? How does that compare to the rest of your evening after you’ve gone for a walk for a half hour when you get home? We need to honor our need to rest and we also need to acknowledge that we might need to change things up to improve our quality of life.
Actively engage in your community. Start with something small and see how it evolves. Once we are looking for opportunities to give, we’ll find them everywhere.
Do an internet search for volunteer opportunities in your area. Here are some resources for Canada. The Lonely Planet has some interesting ideas for volunteer opportunities in the US. Here is a link for Amsterdam. Try it for yourself.