Why Doing Good Is Good For Your Mental Health

Last year was unexpected for many: personal and professional disruption forced most of us to re-evaluate our priorities, what we value and where we find purpose. And an interesting trend emerged. The value of human connection became more critical than ever – and people who actively sought to connect with and help others through acts of kindness like volunteering fared better in their mental health. 

“These events confirmed that we are social beings who seek connection and belonging,” says Dieter Veldsman, Head: Organisational Effectiveness, Group Human Capital at Momentum Metropolitan Holdings. 

“Lockdown forced isolation, and loneliness emerged as one of the biggest threats. It did, however, cause many to reach out and seek connection with people beyond their loved ones – and volunteering proved to help those searching for meaning and purpose as it shifted the focus to others and drove empathy by putting them in other’s shoes.”

Helping others gave volunteers a chance to look beyond the reality of the pandemic, and find reasons to be thankful, adds clinical psychologist and founder of the PsychMatters Centre Joanna Kleovoulou. It served as a time of learning, growth and positive impact because taking that heart-centred approach to helping others meant moving away from catastrophic ‘me’ thinking to solutions-centred ‘we’ thinking.

‘Me’ thinking is driven by depression, anxiety and isolation, and volunteering is able to overcome that type of “all or nothing” mindset by providing both a cognitive and emotional perspective of the good that comes from helping others, and the sense of connection and purpose it fosters.

“In fact, people are hardwired for kindness and to do good deeds: the pleasure centres in the brain are activated when we do good, releasing dopamine and serotonin that makes us feel better, happier and more motivated,” says Kleovoulou. This in turn lowers feelings of depression and anxiety, improves self-esteem and enables a feeling of belonging. 

Unlocking the benefits of a life lived in service

Saray Khumalo, the first black woman to summit Mount Everest and board member of the Momentum Metropolitan Foundation, is a living example of this. “My grandfather used to say that a life lived in service is a life worth living, and I believe that volunteering is an act embedded in the spirit of ubuntu which helps to fulfil our ‘why’.”

And although the pandemic threw a curveball that impacted the volunteering and fundraising initiatives of 2020, it didn’t halt them. It meant finding flexible and creative ways to contribute. This tenacity paid off: Saray and her partners broke a Guinness World Record for the most money raised during an eight-hour stationary cycling fundraiser. That money will be used to build digital libraries for children in rural areas whose education was disrupted by COVID-19.

This is one of many examples of South Africans finding ways to overcome the challenges presented by the pandemic to volunteer their time and resources to make a difference to the communities that need it the most. 

It is this resilience of the human spirit, and the recognition of the power that acts of kindness hold – to forge connections, to help those who need it most and to find light in times of darkness – that serves as the driving force of the Lesedi Awards. 

Every year, Momentum Metropolitan Holdings honours and celebrates its employees who give back to their communities through volunteering in all its forms – and despite 2020’s unique challenges, people continued to find ways to show up and show care. “There were 530 new registrations on online volunteering platform forgood, and payroll giving did not decline in any way,” says Charlene Lackay,Head of CSI for Momentum Metropolitan.

“People found a way to stick with their purpose and stay connected in kindness, helping us and the communities we serve become stronger together. This is why the focus of the 2020 Lesedi Awards was ‘We. Stronger than Me’: to showcase the power of connection, of combining individual efforts to create a powerful wave of positive change.”

This positive change did more than illustrate the power of volunteering to help the communities that need it. It showed its potential to help the individual volunteering too – by strengthening their mental health and spirit. “Volunteering serves as a way to stitch society back together, in more ways than one,” says Lackay.

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