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Shifting the Focus: In Serving Others, We Can Help Ourselves

Sep 13, 2017 2:20:10 PM

When You're Stuck in Your Head

“You know, depression is sort of a selfish feeling,” someone told me last week. “I just sit there, thinking only about myself and my life.” So, when she is able, she volunteers with a local hospice. On the days she volunteers, her depression is not as bad.

serving others


As human beings, we are not short on suffering. Whether it’s depression, anxiety, grief, addiction, or illness, we all – at one time, or oftentimes – have our own struggles to face. We ruminate over the past and worry about the future, sometimes too stuck in our own minds to recognize how, in serving the world around us, we just might help ourselves.

And Then There’s the News

Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen the devastation Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have caused in southeast Texas, in the Caribbean, and throughout Florida. We’ve read about the floods in India and South Asia, having left thousands of people dead and many homeless. People we know and love die, sometimes unexpectedly. Our parents grow old, children in our communities get sick, and we watch family members (sometimes ourselves) wrestle with all types of addiction.

serving others

But There Are Stories that Inspire Us

As riveting as watching Jim Cantore on The Weather Channel during any hurricane can be, so can scrolling through the countless stories of people being rescued, lives being saved, and communities coming together during crises. Witnessing good things being done makes us not only feel better but also more altruistic. Check out this article: https://helix.northwestern.edu/article/kindness-contagious-new-study-finds.

serving others

Have you had the opportunity to do something kind for someone else, with no expectation of anything in return? Or, participated in any type of community service work – donating clothes, supplies, money to the less fortunate, or serving the homeless at a shelter/diner – and experienced the peace that comes with giving to someone who will not be able to repay you? Check out this recent article in TIME: "The Secret to Happiness is Helping Others".

The Power of Service Work

Alcoholics Anonymous, the 12-step programs for alcoholics, focuses on service work in its 12th step: "Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs." In focusing his energy on helping and serving others, rather than obsessing over the past or rationalizing one more drink, the alcoholic has a greater chance of staying sober today. As it turns out, this works. A 2004 study focused on recovering alcoholics, and the relationship between helping other alcoholics and relapse in the year following treatment, demonstrated that those helping others were significantly less likely to relapse. Read the abstract here: Helping Other Alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous and Drinking Outcomes: Findings from Project MATCH.

So, How Do I Get Out of My Head Again?

serving others

Next time you find yourself ruminating about the past, obsessing over a relationship, or feeding your fears about the future, think about what you can do to get out of your head. It doesn't have to be expensive, complex, or even require you getting out of your pajamas. Check on your elderly neighbor, call an old friend, or buy the guy behind you in the Starbucks drive-thru line a coffee. Donate to an organization you believe in. The simplest act of altruism can leave you with a sense of purpose, community, empowerment, and optimism. It can boost both your mood and self-confidence, while also offering perspective on your life, in general. And just maybe, it can get you out of that rut you might be in today.

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