The “Habitastic” way to deal with stress

It’s fairly well known that practicing generosity can be an effective way of alleviating stress. Acts of kindness and volunteer work get us out of our heads and out of the “I’m the center of the universe” trap by forcing us to focus on something or someone else for a while. All of a sudden our problems don’t seem so big or overwhelming when put in the perspective of another person’s.

Sweating through a morning of hard work at a Habitat for Humanity home-build this week showed me that there are even more benefits to lending a helping hand on a regular basis. Besides the distraction from our own problems, there is the self-esteem and self-efficacy that comes from learning to do an unfamiliar job and doing it well. I can proudly say that I helped build a roof today, and that feeling of accomplishment helps to dislodge any negative thoughts about myself that might be causing stress.

imageThe hard physical work is also so unlike what most of us spend our days doing that our monkey minds shut off for a while and we are able to stay focused on the task at hand. When operating a table saw or lifting heavy trusses atop a house, keeping everyone safe and doing it right take precedence over worrying about the project at work or the problems of our children.

There’s also the camaraderie of working as a team, whether it’s with perfect strangers, co-workers, or family members. We learn about each other, strengthen existing bonds, and are reminded of the need to be good communicators. Most people very quickly fall into a rhythm of working together for the common goal.

I don’t know what brought all these people together to build a house for an unknown family. There was the young woman getting married in two weeks, stressed over wedding plans, but taking the day to build instead. There was a group of people who work in the same office given the day off for the project. Two sisters, a mother and daughter, people on vacation. Was it for fun, stress relief, a belief in the cause? Does it really matter?

Jacques Cousteau said that, “It takes generosity to discover the whole through others. If you realize you are only a violin, you can open yourself up to the world by playing your role in the concert.”

Spacious hearts in a big country

Generosity has been an important presence in my life this month. So I looked up the definition of the word, and I saw that two of its meanings are “readiness or liberality in giving” and “largeness or fullness”. I like those definitions, because truly, being ready and willing to give to others enlarges us beyond measure.

I’ve spent the past 2-1/2 weeks traveling in Australia, and I have been the beneficiary of countless acts of generosity. In Sydney, a business acquaintance invited us to his home for a relaxed and convivial family meal, because he knew that eating in restaurants night after night gets old. In Brisbane, a woman I met at dinner one night offered to drive me to the koala sanctuary I wanted to visit — and then paid for my entry once we got there. Volunteer guides at botanic gardens and art museums freely and pleasantly shared their knowledge and their passion for the treasures they oversee. The cheery people in the many small cafés and B&Bs always greeted us with a smile and an eagerness to talk about what they had to offer us.image

Sally Kempton writes that practicing generosity challenges “our trust in abundance” as well as “our ability to empathize with others”. Believing that we have enough for ourselves makes it easier to give to others, as does the perception that the person to whom we are giving has the same needs and desires as we do. The great gift of the people I met was their willingness to share, whether it was information, food or friendliness, without reservation or frugality. They acted on the assumption that our commonalities were greater than our differences, and didn’t hold back.

The connection that occurs between people when we are generous with each other is what brings fullness to us. The more we give, the more we have. It’s an expansion of the social network that takes us out of our narrow perspective and allows us to glimpse the web of possible interrelationships in the world. It enlarges our potential at the same time that it makes the world seem incredibly small and intimate.

Acts of generosity color our view of life, whether they are the kindnesses of strangers when we travel or the simple things we do for our friends and family every day. When we receive generosity, the view is as bright as a rainbow; and when we don’t, it can be as dark as a storm cloud. I saw a real rainbow one day during my trip, but I also like to think of it as a symbol of what I received.


Liberality in giving or willingness to give.

An article in the newsletter from my local hospital caught my eye yesterday. It told about some hospital employees who started a program to volunteer to help patients during meal times. Many patients, especially the elderly, need a little extra help with cutting their food or opening containers. When a family member can’t be there to help them, hospital employees (from all departments) volunteer to step in, providing assistance, encouragement and companionship for one to two hours a week.

By giving the gift of their time and attention, these employees are also receiving many benefits. There is a significant relationship between volunteering and good health. People who regularly volunteer generally live longer, function better, and have lower rates of depression as they get older than people who don’t volunteer.

Volunteers also report more satisfaction with their lives, higher self-esteem, higher levels of happiness and a greater sense of being in control of their lives. In addition, being a volunteer can sometimes involve people in a new social network, with all of the stress-buffering benefits that social support provides.

Why do some people volunteer and others don’t? Sometimes it feels like giving something to others – whether it is our time, our money or our love – means that we will have less of that for ourselves. When we let go of that habit of clinging to things, we learn that to give is to receive, and to receive is to give.

As a practical matter, studies have shown that one big difference between those who volunteer and those who don’t is time spent watching TV. Active volunteers watch far less television. So while it may seem that we don’t have time to volunteer, the reality may be that we only need to give up one of our “low-value” activities.

Helping others can also put people into new social roles; this can give them a sense of meaning and purpose in life. In that context, practicing generosity can be considered a spiritual practice. While that may sound surprising, if you think of spirituality as being connected to something larger than yourself, it makes sense. Practicing generosity helps us see how we are all connected and interdependent. It breaks down the barriers of time, space, age, race or socioeconomic status that may falsely separate us.

If you want to be a volunteer, but aren’t sure how to get started, look into programs in your city or county. Many local governments have web sites devoted to volunteer needs, some keep a roster of volunteers to call upon, and others will match you according to your interests. There are usually short term, long term and one-time opportunities available in your community.

The Corporation for National & Community Service is also a good resource.