Updated: Apr 9, 2020

The positive benefits of volunteering and altruistic acts are undeniable. People who volunteer are happier, healthier and they live longer. When volunteers have a sense of purpose and shared meaning with others the benefits are even greater. All over the news and in my personal life I see evidence of generosity and care for others. As humans, we seem to be wired for compassion and giving.

Two years ago, I got interested in altruism research. I started talking with my dear friend, Ben, about it. Ben was one of the most genuinely altruistic people in my life and we began sharing books and articles. Ben helped me set up a website to pull other people into the project and he jokingly told me, “You’re going to own altruism the way Brené Brown owns shame”. Ben was so funny.

In the midst of these conversations, Ben died. His death was sudden and unexpected, and my family was devastated by his loss. Ten months later, my Dad developed a rare neurological disorder -- he passed away within three weeks of diagnosis.

Needless to say, the altruism project went on hold. In the midst of grief, I didn’t have much to give. There are clear benefits to behaving generously, but there are also consequences to burn out – sometimes, especially in the midst of grief and stress, you need to rest and ask for help.

We are all in a period of collective global grief and change right now. For some of us, we have energy to reach out and provide help—for others, it’s the time to slow down and receive.

If you’re struggling right with whether you have the time to give or you need to prioritize your own wellbeing, below are a few thoughts that might help guide your decision.

How much time and energy do you currently have? Take a moment to honestly check in with where you are at right now in terms of your mental and physical energy. Look at your calendar -- how much extra time could you commit to giving right now without hurting yourself? Whatever answer you come up with is ok. Back to my post on self compassion, this is a time to respect our limits and treat ourselves kindly.

Ask for help if you need it. You may be experiencing stress and grief right now. If that is the case it might be time to let someone help you. Asking for help requires strength and vulnerability. Asking for help also gives someone else the gift of allowing them to flex their compassion muscles.

What skills can you share? If you’ve decided that now is the time for you to find a way to give back, ask yourself, "what can I share that people need right now"? If you’ve never volunteered before, this is a great time to push through any anxiety that has held you back in the past and try something new. Almost every city has a list of local charities and agencies that need help. Your energy might go into calling and checking in on a friend who needs support or to delivering groceries to people who can’t get out of their homes. All acts of kindness and generosity matter, and for the most vulnerable among us, informal supports can be the difference between deprivation and depression or connectedness and thriving.

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