How Volunteering Saved Me

I use words to tell stories, make people laugh, and provide accessible explanations to complicated issues. I always write different drafts for every story, but my experience didn’t prepare me for this one. Perhaps this story is a bit too personal because it deals with something I couldn’t address for a long time.

In my first draft, I tell the story of my fall and then to make it less depressing I share how I rose up above my difficulties and lived happily ever after. It felt fake and unrealistic. The second draft made fun of the whole situation and turned my suffering into entertainment belittling the whole situation. The third draft was telling everything as is and really bummed me out! If I didn’t want to read my own story, how can I expect this of you?

Let’s put it like this: a bunch of things happened that made me loose faith in my ability to live a happy life, I didn’t like who I had become and I wasn’t a fun person to be around. After ‘consulting the Internet’, I discovered that this crushing feeling I had was absolutely normal and was nothing to be a shamed of, after all depression hits intelligent people, and obviously I am an intelligent person. So… I was fine. Totally normal.

So what if I like white wine? I wasn’t chugging beer, I didn’t have a drinking problem, I just liked white wine.

As you drink wine, your tolerance for alcohol increases and every now and then you just need to drink an extra glass to calm your nerves after a stressful day. Absolutely normal. Besides, everyone around me drank, and it had nothing to do with the fact that I was working as a bartender. This is how a modern-day-TV-women relaxes after work, on weekends and when going out with friends, isn’t it?

Now comes the part that changed everything! Well, not everything — just my drinking habits. Something happened that prevented me from drinking alcohol. Can you imagine? No more drinks — not even a cider — and that’s practically a soft drink. The first three months were hell. I kept ordering sparkling water and cursing my luck. One of my friends suggested I start jogging — it gave him such a buzz… He said it had something to do with the amount of oxygen that goes into your brain and the endorphins. Well, I had nothing to lose, and the last time I worked out was in my twenties… So I decided to give it a go. It wasn’t great at first, I had to nap after every jog but one day it started to become fun. Old ladies on the street greeted me and I felt like a heavy-breathing hero.

As I had more time on my hands and a clear mind, I decided to find a nice book on Audible to entertain me while I cleaned my house. (BTW Audible is Amazon’s ‘books on tape’).

I like listening to autobiographies of comedians or other famous people while cleaning my house, cooking or taking a train. (I especially love it when the author reads his/her own book on Audible). I liked hearing about how lame these people were before they became awesome. On my recommendation page on Audible I saw a new book with a photo of the Dalai Lama on the cover. This book promised to provide scientific proof of how compassion makes us happy. Well, why not? Who doesn’t want to be happy?

This book has nothing to do with religion, it shows you how compassion can change lives. It acknowledges that compassion doesn’t come naturally to our cynical character and shows us how we can stop obsessing about our pity problems and think about someone else for a change. Nothing new there, but sometimes I need to be reminded that I’m not the center of the universe, and I really should relax my anxieties, drop my self-obsession, and dial down those me-first ambitions so I can think about others too.

The book has many interesting studies but I only want to mention two that really hit home with me. Quitting drinking and jogging didn’t make me a better person or any happier for that matter. I just had to figure out what to do with all the free time I had, now that I wasn’t drinking and binge watching shows on Netflix. My ‘sad part’ didn’t go away but its annoying voice wasn’t as loud as before. As I was taking out the empty wine bottles I heard this:

A Native American story has a father telling his son, “There are two wolves battling in my heart. One wolf is violent and dangerous, the other full of warmth and compassion.”
The son asks, “Which wolf will win?”
The answer: “The one I feed.”

It really made me think about my own negative impact on my emotions. I kept feeling sorry for myself, thinking how unfair everything was, blaming everyone for standing in my way and just being a giant buzzkill. As I was indulging myself in these unhelpful emotions, I couldn’t move around them. I was feeding the wrong wolf and he was getting stronger and stronger.

The second study was about Japan:

In responding to a tragic wave of suicide among young people there, the Dalai Lama suggested that Japanese youth would do well to volunteer to help the needy in Third World countries. Serving the needy brings a greater sense of purpose to our lives — a fact recognised by psychologists as a key to personal well-being. By refocusing us away from the usual mental diet of worries, frustrations, hopes, and fears, compassion puts our attention on something bigger than our petty concerns. This larger goal energises us. We are free from our inner troubles, which in itself makes us happier.

These two stories, among other interesting examples, made me reevaluate my situation. If volunteering helped young Japanese people to stop killing themselves, maybe I can also give it a chance. To be totally honest I’m not the volunteering type. I was raised to look volunteers as people who are looking for redemption because they did something really bad. I admired my friends who volunteered, but for them it had everything to do with religion — and I’m not too keen on religion. The next passages from the book made me rethink my position.

If we were to embrace a genuine concern for others, then in our daily lives we would not only be kinder but would also be freed from reactivity based on cynicism.
In economics, we develop five-year and ten-year plans for change and growth. That’s fine. But we need similar plans to cultivate warm-heartedness and compassion. What doesn’t work is merely repeating “compassion, compassion, compassion” a thousand times — it does nothing for us. Rather than espousing goodness but not acting on it, we need full conviction that we want to cultivate the capacity for compassion, based on recognizing its value and the self-confidence that we can do this. The real test lies not in what we embrace but in what we do.
In research at the University of North Carolina, practicing an attitude of loving-kindness not only lessened depression and boosted positive moods but also increased people’s sense of satisfaction with their lives, strengthening their connections with family and friends.
At Emory University, a similar adaptation was used with college students who were suffering depression. Initial results suggested that promoting an attitude of compassion not only fended off depression to some extent but also lessened the body’s responses in the face of stress. Early findings on cultivating an attitude of compassion suggest even biological benefits, such as lessened inflammation and lowered levels of stress hormones.
“One of the most important things we all have to realize is that human happiness is interdependent,” the Dalai Lama wrote in a foreword to a biography of Mahatma Gandhi. “Our own successful or happy future is very much related to that of others. Therefore, helping others or having consideration for their rights and needs is actually not just a matter of responsibility, but involves own happiness.”

Well, I tried everything else but doing something for someone else. I finished the book and went online to find volunteering opportunities for internationals available in The Hague. For full disclosure, in the past I looked for volunteering positions related to my field. The desire to volunteer came not from the need to help people but to gain experience that might lead to the open arms of my next employer. After reading the book my perspective shifted. It wasn’t important for me what I might ‘get’ from this position, but what I’m going to give to this position and who I’m going to help.

Luckily one of the volunteering positions was right up my alley: connecting internationals with meaningful volunteer opportunities at local non-profit organisations. I was given an opportunity to work with talented people who found themselves in a new country without connections, language and local work experience. I have been actively contributing to this for a while now and it really changed the way I perceive the world around me, I see opportunity rather than bleak unfriendliness. I keep thinking about new ways I can help, how can I make new meaningful connections with the people around me and just how not to be a self-centered buzzkill.

Is this happily ever after? I’m sure it isn’t. I still have the two wolfs in me; there are still things that bother me and evoke negative reactions. The only thing that has changed is my attitude towards my negative emotions.

While we can’t control when we feel anger or fear — or how strongly — we can gain some control over what we do while in their grip. Even though there may be a bit of legitimacy to our grievances, are the disturbing emotions we feel way out of proportion? Are such feelings familiar, recurring again and again? If so, we would do well to gain more control over those self-defeating habits of mind.
This approach takes advantage of an effect studied by Kevin Ochsner, a neuroscientist at Columbia University. While volunteers’ brains were being scanned, they saw photos of people’s faces showing emotions ranging from a woman in tears to a baby laughing. Their emotional centers immediately activated the circuitry for whichever feeling those faces expressed. But then Ochsner asked the volunteers to rethink what might be going on in the more disturbing photos in a less alarming way: Perhaps that woman was crying at a wedding, not a funeral. With that rethink, there was a striking shift in the brain: The emotional centers lost energy, as circuits higher in the prefrontal cortex — those for pondering — activated. As the Columbia research showed, this strategy seems to arouse circuitry in the prefrontal areas that can resist more primal limbic signals for strong negative emotions.

I sent this post to my friends not knowing what they might think of this honest and personal post. It’s not about art, history or funny stories I wanted to share, it tells a story about something they had no idea was going on. They shared my post with their friends, and I couldn’t believe how many of them immediately understood what I was talking about and for the first time shared their stories with me.

All the passages taken from A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World:

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