Community service, charity, seva
Selfless service obviously benefits those whom we serve, but it benefits us as well. By practicing generosity, we can step beyond our own temporary desires and worries and become part of something greater. Studies have shown that acts of charity both boost mood temporarily and increase long-term emotional wellbeing. Kind and generous people are, overall, happier; and, by serving the community, you not only take charge of your own wellness, you help promote the wellness of others.
Select a charitable organization or cause, and donate your time weekly.
- Begin by thinking about the sort of service that really speaks to you; though giving money is necessary and helpful, devoting your time to service is an intensely gratifying experience in the way that simple donation cannot be. By selecting a cause that moves you, you will be more likely to start and stick with your service. If you are a lover of the wilderness, you might want to work with environmental organizations; if you love children, there are thousands of children’s charities that could use your help.
- Here are some suggestions if you have a hard time thinking of your service goals: volunteer at a hospice and spend time with the patients there; if you are qualified, give meditation or yoga classes for free at your community center; do research on human rights violations abroad and start a letter-writing campaign in your community; volunteer to help feed the poor or homeless (people do this on Thanksgiving and then forget the rest of the year!).
- Don’t enter your service with the explicit goal of improving your mental health or of making yourself feel good. These are consequences of generosity, but they should not move it.
- Dedicate a few hours a week to service if you can. Make it part of your weekly ritual as much as going to work or eating dinner.
- If you are cramped for time, use GuideStar to find a charitable organization with goals you support that has a low maintenance overhead; that is, that most of the money it receives goes directly to the people it serves. Donate money to that organization when you really lack the time for active service; however, don’t use it as a get-out-of-action-free card.
- Invite friends and family to join you. By growing service, you grow the community and increase the lovingkindness in the whole world.
Selfless service is a commonality to nearly all religious traditions and non-spiritual self-help thought. Seva means "service" in Sanskrit and is an essential part of devotional practice in all the Indian religions, as well as a component of the path to enlightenment through Karma yoga. Islam promotes the concept of sadaqah or "voluntary charity" in addition to zakat, an obligatory tithing to charity. The word "charity" itself comes from the Latin word caritas, originally used in the Christian faith to mean lovingkindness toward all, but now associated with what we call "good works." All these faiths have promoted the same thing: to act as a vehicle through which the divine can act, increasing happiness, love, and life and decreasing sorrow, hate, and death for all.
Altruistic acts activate the subgenual cortex/septal region in the brain, the part that is associated with social attachment and bonding. We are hard-wired to find charity pleasurable in addition to our more selfish needs, not in spite of them.