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Feeling at a Loss For Meaning or Purpose? Consider Volunteering

Updated: Jan 19


“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Viewing one’s life as meaningful is associated with better physical health, reduced anxiety and depression, and greater longevity.


An experiment published in The Journal of Positive Psychology suggests that engaging in prosocial behaviours (social actions for the benefit or wellbeing of others) can increase perceptions of meaning in life.


In the experiment, participants were given $5 and either instructed to:


  1. Spend the money on a gift for someone else or donate it to a charity; or

  2. Spend the money on a gift for themselves or use it pay a bill.


The researchers found that spending money on others increased perceptions of meaning in life, compared to spending money on one’s self.


The results also showed that people who spent money to benefit others experienced higher personal self-worth and self-esteem, which in turn increased their sense that life is meaningful. Spending money to benefit other people also increased feelings of social connection with others.


These findings are consistent with previous research that has found that helping other people increases our own happiness and satisfaction with life.


If you feel at a loss for meaning or purpose, consider the following:


1. Giving: Research indicates that spending money to benefit other people can lead to greater happiness and meaning in life compared to spending money to benefit oneself. Give it a go: buy someone a coffee; pay for someone’s petrol; donate money to charity.


“No one has ever become poor by giving”
– Anne Frank


2. Volunteering: Giving your time to assist others is associated with higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Research suggests that long-term volunteering and volunteering for a variety of organisations is particularly beneficial for wellbeing. To search for volunteering opportunities within Australia see: https://govolunteer.com.au/


3. Gratitude: A series of studies published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that spending 5-10 minutes writing short notes of gratitude to people who have positively influenced your life is related to enhanced meaning in life. Life can change tomorrow. Let them know what they mean to you today.


4. Kindness: A large body of experimental research suggests that performing acts of kindness (e.g., giving someone a genuine complement, donating blood, visiting an elderly relative, giving up your seat on the train) increases wellbeing. Research suggests that we reap more personal benefits when kind acts are novel and varied (rather than repeating the same kind act week after week) and when numerous kind acts are completed in close succession (e.g., completing 5 kind acts in 1 day each week is more beneficial for wellbeing than completing 5 kind acts throughout the week).

“We scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in wellbeing of any exercise we have tested. Here is the exercise: find one wholly unexpected kind thing to do tomorrow and just do it. Notice what happens to your mood.”
– Martin Seligman

Need inspiration? Check out The Kindness Factory.


Restoring Meaning after Tragedy:

The experience of tragedy or loss can often bring into question one’s sense of meaning and purpose in life. If you, or someone you know, are unsure of how to navigate through this process, consider connecting to someone or something outside of yourself via giving, volunteering, gratitude, or kindness.

“You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations – to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless … We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame – but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.”
– President Barack Obama


A Note for those with Depression:

Research shows that if you are depressed, helping others may not only help you to feel more connected to your community and increase your sense of purpose in life, but it may also reduce symptoms of depression.


In the words of someone with depression: "I have cried on the way to volunteering. When I arrive, I can still feel that sadness in the pit of my stomach. But as I begin to spend time there, I also start to feel a slight joy seeing the smiles on the faces of the people I help. I feel interest at learning about the lives of the people I meet. And I feel grateful for the blessings I have in my life that others do not.


When I leave volunteering, I find that sadness has shifted a little. I feel a little lighter. I see things slightly differently. I feel slightly more connected to the rest of the world, and a bit more optimistic about the future."


Just remember to start small and be kind to yourself in the process.

“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it for anyone else”
– Charles Dickens

Volunteering during COVID-19: A number of organisations are currently in need of volunteers during the COVID-19 pandemic. These include organisations who are looking to help the vulnerable members of our society, through, for example, social telephone calling programs for people in isolation, and pen-pal programs whereby volunteers write letters to older adults. To find remote or online volunteering opportunities in Australia here.


Photo by Tom Parsons

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