A major symptom of depression is anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure from activities that would typically bring you enjoyment. This symptom can feel especially alarming if you experience depression as you find yourself feeling unmotivated and uninterested in activities that used to be your favorite things to do. In treatment, one of the major strategies for addressing anhedonia is behavioral activation. With behavioral activation, people experiencing depression begin increasing their engagement in activities that provide meaning, mastery, and enjoyment in their lives. While it often takes a little bit of time, consistent increased participation in these types of activities can have a major positive impact on mood. However, when you are feeling depressed or down it can be hard to even imagine activities that you might enjoy. In today’s blog we’ll explore a type of activity that you may want to consider adding to your behavioral activation toolkit: helping others. Research has shown that acts of altruism, kindness, and helping others helps to support our mental health . During increasingly uncertain times, it may be helpful to remember that the simple act of giving help to others increases our own sense of well-being and can help to improve the world around us.
Why Does Helping Others Feel Good?
There are a lot of theories about why helping other people, even at the expense of our time and money, makes us feel good. However, one of the most popular theories comes from the belief that humans are fundamentally social beings. This means that the need to feel like you belong to a group and that you are connected to others is necessary for well-being, both psychologically and physiologically. In fact, the current research shows, and many personal anecdotes from quarantine likely support, that feelings of isolation increase our risks for both mental and physical health concerns . Likely, helping others is one way that we increase our feelings of connectedness and importance to others. We feel like more of a part of our community, be it within our circle of friends or family, our neighborhood or city, or even a part of the global community. In turn, we are also more likely to be connected to others who will offer us support in times of need (although, research has shown that people engage in helping behaviors even when they do not expect reciprocation- we just like to help!)
Why Would I Add Helping Others to My Toolkit?
Often when we are experiencing depression our world turns inward- thoughts and emotions are often focused on self-criticism, self-doubt, and feelings of inadequacy. Helping others not only helps us to feel more connected to others, but also increases feelings of self-esteem and self-efficacy . This means that whether we offer to volunteer or help a friend move, we leave the situation feeling more capable and more competent in addition to the benefits of feeling like a member of your community! Increasing these feelings of self-esteem and competence are a vital part of challenging depression symptoms. The more that you engage in acts of helping others, the more you can begin to feel that you are worth help and care too.
Some benefits of helping others are not as direct. One example is that the more you experience the positives of being supportive of others, the more you can begin to trust that allowing others to help you may not be the burden that depression can sometimes make you feel like it is. Think about how good it can make you feel to go out of your way to help a loved one, the important members of your community can feel the same way when helping you.
What Do I Do?
There is a huge range of activities that could bring you the benefits of helping others. Take a moment to reflect on your past experiences giving other people a hand. Did you help your friend run errands? Help one of your parents garden? Maybe you did a beach clean-up as part of a high school or college organization? These past experiences with helping others may help to offer some guidance as to which activities would be meaningful to you now.
You can also look up organizations or movements that are important to you and see whether they have volunteer opportunities. Often there are local chapters of organizations that already have volunteer opportunities available in your area. If you feel hesitant to sign up for an activity without talking to someone first, reach out to the organizer- they usually have a representative who would be excited to introduce you to the volunteer process and get you involved in the organization.
Another option is to start small. Small acts of kindness in your immediate circle, such as friends, family, and even co-workers can be just as important. Helping someone does not alway have to involve solving or fixing problems (although it sometimes can!). Leaving a kind note for your partner, asking your neighbor about their day, calling a friend who you haven’t spoken with in a while all count when it comes to trying to help others. Consistent engagement in any of the activities listed above, both big and small, can help you to experience the benefits of connectedness and increased self-esteem.
The Importance of Balance
Importantly, the positive benefits of helping others does have diminishing returns, which basically means that as with many coping and behavioral activation skills, you can get too much of a good thing. This means that it is important not to engage in helping activities at the cost of your physical or emotional health, or in ways that prevent you from giving yourself the care you need. For everyone, this balance will be different. It is important to keep in mind, especially when your depression symptoms may feel at their worst, that small acts of kindness are better than both none and too much, for you and for the people around you.
Supporting your mental health during a depressive episode is challenging work, and behavioral activation is just one facet of treatment. If you find yourself struggling with depression, or if you would like support exploring the behavioral activation strategies that might work best for you, please reach out to me Dr. Grace Waite, to schedule an appointment. Therapy can help to not only address symptoms of depression, and the relationship and life stressors that can contribute to them, but also help you increase your engagement in activities in your life that are truly meaningful to you.
 Curry OS, Rowland LA, Van Lissa CJ, Zlotowitz S, McAlaney J, Whitehouse H. Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor. J Exp Soc Psychol. 2018;76:320–9.
 Wang, J., Mann, F., Lloyd-Evans, B., Ma, R., & Johnson, S. (2018). Associations between loneliness and perceived social support and outcomes of mental health problems: a systematic review. BMC psychiatry, 18(1), 1-16.
 Brown KM, Hoye R, Nicholson M. Self-Esteem, Self-Efficacy, and Social Connectedness as Mediators of the Relationship Between Volunteering and Well-Being. J Soc Serv Res. 2012;38(4):468–83.