For it is in Giving that We Receive: Finding Happiness through Volunteering

“Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.”—Mary Oliver

About a year ago I hit a spiritual bump in the road. Mine is a typical story: that of a young, privileged, healthy woman who, despite having a great job, wonderful friends, and a supportive, loving family, constantly felt unsatisfied and anxious. Short of packing my bags for a all-expenses-paid trip to Italy, India, and Indonesia, I tried nearly everything in my attempt to feel better—yoga, running, dance classes, meditation, metaphysical texts, sleepovers with girlfriends, a no-sugar diet, weekend visits to friends and family, walks in the woods, a trip to the Mediterranean, therapy, B-vitamins.  All of this helped; it helped a lot, but I still felt like I had to work extremely hard for brief bursts of inspiration, calmness, and happiness, and it was exhausting.

Then I realized what was missing. For the first time in my life, I hadn’t been involved in community service of some sort, and it was apparent that a life centered solely around myself had taken it’s toll on my livlihood. So I signed up to read to kids at a homeless shelter and work at the soup kitchen in my Brooklyn neighborhood.

The first time I went to the shelter I read to kids for an hour and a half. We read the classics (and my favorites): Where the Wild Things Are, Jumanji, The Lorax, Amelia Bedelia, etc.  The kids were awesome (I mean the old english definition: AWEsome: “inspiring fear or awe”); unruly, brilliant, sweet, sassy, curious. After a couple of hours, I left. I walked out, stopped in front of the shelter doors, and stood in shock; it was all gone—all the anxiety and restlessness, all the yearning to find something that would fulfill me, something that would make me “whole.”  All the sadness, gone. I felt like a bewildered Dorothy: you mean this whole time that’s all I had to do?!

It’s alarmingly simple. By giving, we receive. That’s it. Not desperate, grand giving, not always Throwing-Out-Your-Worldly-Possessions-and-Heading to-Africa Giving (although by all means…). Giving by calming down, by simply showing up, by involving ourselves in each other, in our communities, in our families. I know this idea is not new to anyone. It makes perfect sense, it’s what many people believe, but sometimes, it’s easy to forget to actually do it, to make this stuff a top priority in our weekly schedules. We’re so busy. It’s understandable that after work most of us want to get home as soon as possible to have time to go to the gym, cook that delicious, healthy meal and get the eight hours of sleep we need, to be happy, to be our best selves.

But if we want to truly be our best, most vibrant selves, we have to pencil it in. Because serving is how we find the things we all are looking for—perspective, stability, interconnectedness, hope, joy, and…wait for it, wait for it—the kicker—…peace. Beyond all understanding; beyond all books, and research, talks with friends, beyond all endorphin-pumping exercise and healthy eating. By serving, we come home, we remember who we are, we discover our highest potential, and we can finally live our healthiest life.

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