In my job, I spend a lot of time researching ways to benefit our health and mental well-being. I’m fascinated by the vast amount of research that confirms the benefits of enhancing our connection with nature. Eating seasonal whole foods, gardening and tending plants, spending time in nature — all of these activities are scientifically proven to benefit our mental and physical health.
There’s also plenty of research that shows how deeply our connections with one another affect our health. As Psychology Today summarizes: “Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and their community are happier, have fewer health problems and live longer. Conversely, a relative lack of social ties is associated with depression and later-life cognitive decline, as well as with increased mortality. One study, which examined data from more than 309,000 people, found that lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50 percent — an effect on mortality risk roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.”
The holiday season usually provides extra opportunities to spend time with family, friends and coworkers, creating new memories and strengthening our bonds. Another excellent way we can connect with those in our communities is through volunteering. In fact, it’s hard to say whether volunteer experiences do more good for others or for ourselves — studies have found volunteering capable of everything from helping adolescents lose weight and improve cholesterol profiles to yielding improved stamina, memory and flexibility in older adults.
Volunteering seems especially well-suited to address some of the prevalent public-health concerns of our time. For example, volunteering is proven to improve compassion and empathy (empathy levels in college students have dropped 30 percent since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past decade). Volunteering also lessens feelings of anxiety and depression (more than 18 percent of adults suffer anxiety, and the World Health Organization reports that depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world by 2020.)
We can even reap health benefits just by being kind to each other. The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation is dedicated to sharing stories and ideas of people being kind to one another. It reports studies finding that simply performing kind acts for others has been shown to increase happiness and well-being, and reduce depression and anxiety. Random acts of kindness can include anything from paying for a stranger’s coffee to delivering bagels to nurses at a pediatric hospital to knitting a pair of mittens for a homeless person.
So this holiday season, rather than stressing about throwing the ideal party or buying perfect gifts, I urge you to think about the ways you can connect with others—family, friends, neighbors and strangers alike. For this is the season of giving, and I think that should refer to much more than boxes wrapped in pretty paper.