By Stacy Notaras Murphy, M.S., LPC
Yes, this is another article about New Year’s resolutions. But it’s not what you think. I’m not going to give you tips for sticking to that diet, or preach about the value of accountability when you want to quit smoking. Rather, this column is about taking better care of your mental health, by resolving to help others this year.
It’s not as altruistic as you might fear. Studies have shown that giving of yourself can raise your mental health status. Simply put: helping others helps you, too. At the same time, many suggest that focusing on the traditional New Year’s resolution lineup – eating differently, stopping bad habits, saving money – can actually exacerbate a negative self image, which may lower self-esteem and increase depression symptoms.
Intentionally cultivating healthy social interest can be a step in the right direction. Individual psychology founder Alfred Adler emphasized the benefits of building a life based on “social interest” or furthering the welfare of others. Contrasting healthy social interest with damaging self-interest, Adler held that those who make life decisions based on improving the lives of others eliminate any deeply-rooted inferiority complexes and feel the life-giving benefits of being part of a community.
Helping others isn’t always just about putting in hours at the soup kitchen. Sometimes opportunities to exercise generosity and compassion stare us right in the face – on the Metro, in the office, or during coffee hour at church. The way many of us live our lives in this busy, stressed-out city may not make much room for connecting with others, but social networks impact happiness in ways we are just starting to understand. In their new study published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Alone in the Crowd: The Structure and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network,” Cacioppio, Christakis, and Fowler reveal that loneliness is somewhat contagious and can lead to the disintegration of the larger society. Noting that the average American experiences loneliness 46 days each year, the research shows that this number is reduced by 5 percent for every friend a person has. Conclusion: making friends is good for you and your neighborhood.
Let’s resolve, then, to do something new this year that actually improves the lives of others while also making us feel like we are part of something larger than ourselves. Perhaps you will find a place to volunteer your time each week, or finally seek out that awkward or lonely coworker and invite him to lunch. Or maybe you want to learn more about living your life in a more ecologically-friendly manner, or you want to join a book group that explores the impact of U.S. foreign policy. My clients have reported good luck with Meetup.com, a free online social network that organizes groups or “meetups” on an infinite number of searchable topics. Find other ways to connect with like-minded people through your place of worship, library, and neighborhood service organizations.
We help others, and ourselves, when we connect. Committing to make deeper relationships with others – when volunteering, when commuting, when studying, whenever – is one resolution with the potential to change the world.