While they admit that the exact cause of why this occurs isn't 100% clear, they say that the health pros could be due to a range of reasons, including simply being out of the house and being social. But, the mental boost isn’t as easy to quantify. They do, however, point out that one thing is important: What you are doing has to be truly altruistic. As in, you have to actually want to do it. Enjoy it. You need to feel an emotional tie to the volunteering to reap the big mind and body benefits. If it veers into a burden territory that stresses you out, the impact on you can take a 180-degree turn.
Nancy Molitor, PhD, a psychologist in Wilmette, Illinois, agrees. She often suggests patients — both those who are suffering from some form of depression and those who need a pick-me-up — volunteer, although she notes that the term is not specific enough. “It has to involve a relationship or activity that is meaningful to you,” she says. “When you reach outside of yourself to do an individual act of kindness, even in your inner circle of people — like calling a friend you haven’t spoken to in a year or visiting an elderly or ill neighbor — this act of thinking beyond yourself can be beneficial.”
Molitor explains that by taking small moments to step outside of yourself, it's possible to regain perspective on your own happiness and health and also to reset your emotional clock. “You may think that you have the worst job in the world, or that because you just had a bad breakup you are going to be alone and your life is terrible. But, once you see someone else who has needs that you feel are worse than yours, you not only want to help them but you feel better about what is going on in your life, too.”
And, Molitor notes that while, yes, giving back to your community is amazing, because the altruism factor is key, you need to keep your giving back in check so that you benefit from it, too (not get all stressed out instead). She suggests trying this easy and totally doable random act of kindness: “Whether you are at a check out stand or standing next to someone, or have some form of interaction with a stranger, say, “Hi, how is your day?” and, most importantly, smile.
Always say you want to do a little something but not sure where to go or how to go about it? Whatever form of volunteering would really hit home with you is available. Here’s a short roundup of some major New York City based charity organizations that make it easy to participate. Which one is right for you?
If you want to feed those in need:
City Meals On-Wheels
Every cent you give goes to creating a yummy meal for an elderly person living in NYC and you can even help hand-deliver food to those in need, too.
Food Bank New York City
Help stockpile the vast shelves of food at their warehouse, pack the meals up, or pour some on a hot plate and put it right in the hands of those who are hungry.
If you want to make your community a prettier place:
If you’ve got a green thumb, you can mulch, plant, and clean up local gardens or even just make sure that recycling and clean up happens at street fairs and other community events.
City of New York Parks and Recreation
Join in on special focused events like "It’s My Park Day," a one hundred park-wide cleanup day, or MillionTreesNYC, when 20,000 new trees are planted in just 24 hours.
Central Park Conservancy
Head to Central Park and clean up trash, become a greeter at one of the entrances to help tourists (and locals!) navigate the vast landscape, and more.
Walk along the water with friends and other ocean lovers and clear the beach of random trash. According to the organization, 18,000 miles was cleaned up in 2012!
If you want to mentor a child:
Help a teen get the support they may need to rock at school (ages range from high school to college students).
Ace Mentor Program
This not-for-profit is solely meant to mentor high school students with an interest in architecture and construction and is focused on creating stellar future designers.
Free Arts NYC
Love to draw and paint? Work on a piece of art with a child (age range is 6 to 12) every week — to not only make something pretty but also to help them build good communication and social skills, too.
If you want to donate old but still totally good stuff:
Housing Works Let others buy your old clothes as well as other castoffs such as books, vases, furniture, etc., to help feed and house those living with HIV/AIDS — or even volunteer to help organize and ring up purchases at one of their thrift shops.
City Opera Thrift Shop
When you bring a bag of donations in, they’ll reimburse your cab receipt (up to $12!) or come to you to pick up larger items — all of which helps support their amazing performances.
The Salvation Army
Bring in your fall cleaning surplus, plus buy new finds while in a store — or get into giving more than ever this holiday season by volunteering to be a bell ringer (yes, that’s the title!) or organizing a toy drive.
If you want to help the elderly and babies feel loved:
New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation
If you had to stay in the hospital, wouldn’t you want to be sung to, read to, or just play a game of Chutes And Ladders? And, if you have a special talent (singer, comedian, magic) you can offer to put on a little show for patients, too.
NYU Langone Medical Center
There are a range of gigs they need assistance with, from sitting at the information desk to welcoming patients and visitors at entry points to assisting in recreation and social events for those who are there for an extended stay.
NY Methodist Hospital
Help a little newborn put on some weight and get out of the hospital faster by being a volunteer cuddler in their Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.