I was first introduced to the idea of generosity as a boost for mental health a few years ago when I trained to be a Sources of Strength mentor.
This was the first time that I learned that were was scientific evidence for the idea that engaging in acts of generosity makes people feel better. Suddenly a whole lot of things started making sense to me. Primarily the fact that when I was feeling low, I often found myself looking for people to help, or ways to brighten other people’s day. They say misery loves company, but my misery likes lifting others out of their sadness, stress and hardship. (I am suddenly thinking about all the great comedians we have lost to depression, and how many of them spoke about the way that making others laugh made them feel better too…)
When I was doing this, I didn’t realize it was my brain fighting for me, and for our sanity. I just knew that when I was sad, or stressed, it reminded me that I didn’t want anyone else to feel that way. Now that I can see the pattern, I can use it to see how I’m doing.
Recently, I knew I was starting to slide toward depression because I started making up care packages. I went to the store and bought a ton of snacks, treats, coloring books, bubbles, puzzles and other random stuff that makes me happy, or that I know is calming/soothing for many people and put together 5 care packages. I didn’t know who they were for, no one had expressed a need, I just had this overwhelming urge to start making “happy boxes.” About a week later I could barely motivate to get out of bed. What was the point? Everything was on fire, and the sparks kept jumping to start new fires, and we hadn’t even finished putting out the first fires. The news was terrible. Covid was still terrible, but now we were acting like it was over, which was going to make it more terrible. Work continued to be more stressful than it had any right to be. There were new layers of family stress being added every day. Everyone kept trying to remind me how good I had it, and I knew that they weren’t wrong, but it also felt like they were ignoring EVERYTHING THAT WAS AWFUL AND SCARY AND PAINFUL AND HARD. Which made me feel like I was alone in trying to solve it all, or move through it all, or just survive it all.
(Note to helpers – it’s okay, and actually really helpful, to validate people’s fears, concerns and hurts. It makes them feel less alone. If they know you understand or at least see the problem, they will trust you more when you try to help them through/around/over it…)
Because being told and reminded how good I had things only made me feel guilty for still feeling so crappy, I stopped talking about how I was feeling. I started “wallflowering” more. As I listened to my friends and family, it confirmed that everyone was going through hard stuff. And everyone was doing the best they could with the tools they had. As I listened, I found opportunities to deliver those care packages I had made. A few colleagues were being put through the wringer. It felt good to drop off a silly box of happy things. One of my kids’ teachers has had a beast of a year. Happy box for her too. A friend has been diligently taking care of others this year, it felt like it was time to take care of her a little.
As I started handing out these boxes, my attitude shifted. I didn’t feel so helpless anymore. I didn’t feel as overwhelmed. Yes, the world felt dark. Yes, everything felt harder than it needed to be. Yes, there were still a dozen blazing fires that needed to be put out, or at least tended to. BUT – I wasn’t hopeless. It wasn’t hopeless. Because it was possible to bring light into the world. It was possible, as Amanda Gorman implores us, to BE a light in the world.
Scrolling twitter, I saw some requests for financial support – for medical costs, for living costs, for things people needed. I don’t have a ton of spare money at the moment, but I remembered that I had a little money chilling in my paypal account. Remembering, and channeling, the 150 twitter strangers who filled my classroom with copies of Maria Dahvana Headley‘s new translation of Beowulf, I gave what I could, remembering how every single book helped me reach my goal, knowing that every $10 gift would help these strangers reach their goals.
And again, I felt less helpless. I felt less hopeless. Sure, in the big picture, I am a little digger and the problem is the Ever Given blocking the Suez Canal – but…The Ever Given was freed, and the digger’s efforts, however small they may have seemed, helped make that possible.
Committing wild and random acts of generosity – whether it’s keeping my car stocked with blankets, gloves and granola bars to give to homeless people in the winter, or paying attention so that when I see or hear someone else is struggling I can offer them a boost, or making sure to celebrate other people’s successes and acknowledge their wins, or just buying something that makes me think of one of my friends or loved ones because I know it will make them smile… Spending time with people, making excuses to call, or send a card. Giving the people around me energy in some way helps me remember that while, “All the darkness in the world cannot put out the light of one small candle,” I can be that candle. I can be that light that refuses to be put out.
Knowing the science of generosity also helped me do something new and revolutionary for me. It helped me start asking for, and receiving help. Knowing that generosity helps others to feel better, helped me understand that accepting generosity, is itself, an act of generosity. People WANT to help. They also want to be the light in people’s lives. It makes them feel good too. Knowing that helped me realize that part of the reason I often get overwhelmed is because I am trying to do too much on my own, and not letting people help when they could. Remembering that the work of keeping the darkness at bay is easier when there is more than one candle in the void, reminds me to nurture and encourage other people’s generous light as well. It has helped me, especially this year, to ask for help. To accept help. To receive help graciously without feeling like I have to pay it back. It helps me see and tap into the flowing river of generosity and see that sometimes I am pouring myself into the river, and sometimes I am drawing from it, and in the end, it all balances.
Generosity reminds me that I’m not alone. It reminds me that I can make a difference, however small, however slight. It reminds me that though there is darkness, there is also light. When I cannot motivate to do things for myself, it helps me motivate to do things for others and in that way to keep trudging forward until I find myself on more solid footing.
*Note – Generosity is not a cure for depression. If you, or someone you love, suffers from depression, please also seek and accept professional support. Generosity is one source of strength, but it is not a silver bullet. Professional mental health support IS ALSO a source of strength, and as a bonus, it will help you navigate fulfilling all of your other sources of strength as well!