Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Helping Others Helps Your Mental Health: Why Volunteering Makes Us Happier

By Roberto Blanco, M.D.

I had just sat down for Dr. Norden’s Neuroanatomy class when one of my classmates, who had just walked into lecture late, announced he heard on the radio that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center Towers.  As was her way, Dr. Norden showed immediate concern, and before I knew it, we were watching another plane fly into the second tower live on CNN in the front of the lecture hall.  It was a surreal scene in Light Hall on Vanderbilt’s Medical campus; one that I did not expect to experience.  The rest of the day was a blur of events and emotions – people in a state of shock, tears shed, classmates comforting each other, and Dr. Norden attempting to put things in perspective.  Class was dismissed for the day, and the rush to call loved ones in New York City and Washington, D.C. began.  My thoughts immediately turned to family members who lived in New York and worry when I was unable to reach them.

10 years ago, the world of every American changed.  In response, the country and the world came together in support of the victims of the terrible tragedy.  People from far and wide drove, some for thousands of miles, to reach New York City and care for complete strangers.  People sacrificed their time, sweat, and a good portion of their lives and livelihoods to help those in need.  Donations flooded in to support the victims’ families.  A rush of prayers, love, and aid from across the globe also streamed in for those affected.  It seemed that the world was one in giving to those who had lost.

I recently wrote a blog post here on happiness, human fulfillment, and flourishing.  In that posting, I discuss human fulfillment and flourishing as the real definition of happiness and the final aim of all of what we do.  A great way to help yourself and your own mental health is to help others.  Feeling useful and needed is a wonderful way to work towards human fulfillment and recognize all you have for which to be grateful.  Serving others is a sign of individual and community emotional health.  Volunteering your time and talents also leads you to finding the love within yourself that you didn’t know you had.  When faced with those who have lost and are truly in need, just like on September 11th, the true beauty of mankind comes out.  

For Sunday's 10th Anniversary of September 11th, President Obama is calling for a national day of giving in memory of those who passed during the attacks.  His goal is to have over 1 million Americans engaged in volunteer work on September 11th.  The American Psychiatric Association has joined "Give an Hour" in aid of military members, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families as part of the “I will” campaign to encourage that same spirit of service that was felt in the days following the attacks.  So, think about joining us in giving by helping build a house for a needy family through an organization like Habitat for Humanity.  Volunteer to distribute food or give to your local food bank.  Help a friend move.  Donate time or resources to a homeless shelter, spend time with the elderly, or serve at a local hospital.  This September 11th, let’s honor those who died by helping a member of your community in need.
In photo: Dr. Blanco and another volunteer work together to build a home through Habitat for Humanity

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