Volunteer some holiday cheer

Keep blues at bayTo give is better than to receive – but volunteering can accomplish both in one fell swoop, says a Baylor College of Medicine psychiatry expert.

Volunteering not only helps those in need but also returns the favor by improving the giver’s psychological state, according to Dr. James Lomax, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the College.

“Generally people feel better if they are doing something for others,” said Lomax. “They feel that they are more valuable as volunteering tends to give them an increased sense of meaningfulness of life.”

Biological component

The discovery of mirror neurons, brain cells that fire when an individual performs a task as well as when an individual watches another doing the same task, suggests that the human mind is wired to be empathetic with other people.

“There is a kind of resonance that takes place with people’s emotions,” said Lomax, whose research interests include the relationship between psychiatry, religion and spirituality. “If you do something that others then feel grateful for and respond positively to, it usually creates positive emotions in the person that is giving as well as in the person receiving.”

Keep blues at bay

Volunteering may also prevent post-holiday blues. The holiday season can spread joy but also bring disappointment, spurred either by overemphasis on materialism or by family stressors. Volunteering can introduce a different perspective to the season and keep expectations realistic, even for children.

“You shouldn’t make your children feel badly about being excited about presents, but you should help them find other sources of gratification and pleasure,” said Lomax.

Wrapping and delivering gifts or food to less fortunate families, for instance, instills a therapeutic sense of community and generosity, rendering volunteer service a unique gift that gives back, said Lomax.

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