Volunteering at Christmas

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One of the features we hope to add to The Good We Do website, is a guide to volunteering in different cities around the world. People with spare time, and a wish to help out, sometimes simply don’t know where to go to find volunteering opportunities that suit them. We hope to make that process a little easier. In advance of that, here is a short guide to some of the volunteering opportunities available in London this Christmas, and other websites you can visit to find more extensive information about what’s possible, and what’s needed around the UK.

Christmas for some people in London isn’t much fun, and volunteering is a way of brightening up someone’s day. Whether it’s working in a homeless shelter, or rattling a bucket on a street corner, even the smallest thing can have an effect on someone else’s Christmas. Don’t forget of course, brightening someone’s day and doing good for others this holiday season, will also make you feel great.

Crisis, the national homeless charity, undertakes the largest Christmas volunteering initiative in the country, and is usually looking for over 10,000 volunteers, for a huge variety of roles. You’d be surprised at some of the things they need, and how your skills might benefit someone. Massages and pilates classes for example, or even dog sitting (no experience required, just a love of dogs). They also have a requirement for more traditional roles, such as Night Owls, people who help late in to the night, ensuring everyone has a great Christmas experience.

World Child Cancer needs people for charity collections outside the Royal Albert Hall. Last Christmas they raised £10,000 with only 30 volunteers, and this year they are keen to beat that figure.

The St. John’s Hospice Fayre also need volunteers every year. Based in North-West London, it’s likely that you’ll have just as much fun as the families enjoying live entertainment and rides.

Operation Christmas Child delivers shoebox gifts to children all over the world, ensuring as many kids as possible get to receive a Christmas present. You can volunteer for this organisation all year round, but they especially need people for Christmas.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of St Martin in the Fields Christmas appeal. Supported by BBC Radio 4 listeners, the appeal only survives and thrives through the hard work of its volunteers. Amongst other things, they always need people to man the phones and process donations.

The list of opportunities available, and what’s needed is endless. There’s Community Christmas for the elderly, the Rotary Club, Salvation Army, London’s Air Ambulance, Hackney Winter Night Shelter, Whitechapel Mission and many, many more.

If you’re serious about wanting to brighten someone else’s Christmas, visit one of these three websites, and you’re guaranteed to find something that matches your skills and availability.

Team London: The Mayor’s volunteering team for the capital.

Do It Trust: The UK’s volunteering database.

Volunteering Matters: Nationwide volunteering organistion.

Time Bank: Recruits and trains volunteers to deliver mentoring projects, and works with businesses to engage staff in volunteering.

Although many volunteering opportunities are not open to children, there are still many things you can do locally as family. Whether it’s helping tidy an elderly neighbour’s house, or taking them shopping, or going door to door collecting clothes for the homeless, doing just a little something will help brighten someone’s Christmas.

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Being Kind Increases Happiness And Wellbeing

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Being kind makes us happy, so say a number of recent studies from around the world. Oxford University analyzed 400 published papers that investigate the relationship between happiness and kindness and concluded that being kind had a significant effect on levels of happiness and wellbeing.

Dr Oliver Scott Curry reports, ‘Humans are social animals. We are happy to help family, friends, colleagues, community members and even strangers under some conditions. This research suggests that people do indeed derive satisfaction from helping others”

A University of Pennsylvania study looked at the effects of writing a thank you letter to someone who had never been properly thanked for an act of kindness. The participant’s happiness scores went sky high and stayed that way for a month after. The Dept of psychology at the university of Tohoku Gakuin University in Japan found that happiness increased just by counting acts of kindness performed over a week.

Being kind is a choice but the instinct and ability to be kind may be something we are born with. Research conducted by Dr. Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute, showed that children begin to help others at a surprisingly early age. For example, a 14-month-old child seeing an adult experience difficulty, such as struggling to open a door because their hands are full, will automatically attempt to help.

Studies have also demonstrated that when we allow ourselves to indulge in random acts of kindness we create neural pathways that enhance feelings of wellbeing and increase the natural flow of feel-good endorphins and mood elevating neurotransmitters. Being kind actually changes the structure of the brain.

To top it all off kindness appears to be self-replicating, inspiring kindness in others. When we do something kind it is highly likely to encourage others to act in a similar way. One study conducted by researchers at Cambridge University, the University of Plymouth and the University of California LA, found that seeing someone else help another person produced good feelings, which subsequently caused them to reach out and do something altruistic themselves.

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Save A life Today: Effective Altruism

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We have recently discovered the writing of Peter Singer and the movement he has inspired, Effective Alturism. The basic idea is that we have become disconnected from the fact that we could as individuals and nations, solve many of the worlds problems if we just decided we wanted to do it.

Peter Singer has written a number of books that look at why most of us wouldn’t hesitate to try and save the life of a child drowning in a shallow river, but don’t feel compelled to save the lives of kids living in extreme poverty even though it’s relatively easy to do so.

There are a few websites helping people to be effectively altruistic. One of them is ‘Giving What You Can.’ Through rigorous research and investigation they have compiled a list of the most effectives charities in the world; the NGO’s that give you the most bang for your buck. For example they have established that every $1000 donated to Against Malaria, a charity that provides mosquito nets, saves a human life.

They also suggest a simple approach to global warming…become a vegetarian some of the time or all of the time.

Peter Singer believes that one of the best things about making simple changes is that you get to feel good about them, that you should feel good about them. Why spend life feeling guilty, when taking a few simple steps means you can walk around knowing that you’ve saved a life or are taking action to save the planet.

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Helping Others Is Good For Your Health

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Helping others and being kind can help you have a happy and healthy life. This isn’t just a ‘hippy dippy’ theory, but one that actually has science behind it. When Stephen Post was a young boy, if he did badly at school, felt left out of his siblings’ games, or simply just had a bad day, his mother would suggest he go out and do something good for someone. So he did, either to an elderly neighbour to rake leaves, or across the street to help another neighbour with his boat. Now a Professor of Alternative Medicine, and author of ‘The Hidden Secrets of Helping’, Stephen says that he always went home feeling better.

Numerous research studies have now backed up the kitchen table-wisdom of Stephen’s mother. They reveal that when we help others, we improve our own health and well-being. The UK’s Mental Health Foundation lists several ways that altruism can help our mental health.

  • It promotes positive physiological changes in the brain that are associated with happiness.
  • It releases endorphins, which in turn activate the parts of our brain that are associated with trust, pleasure and social connection.
  • Being part of a social network also leads to feelings of belonging and reduces isolation, which in turn reduces our stress levels.
  • It also helps us to keep things in perspective, by focusing our time on those who might be less fortunate that ourselves.
  • It also helps reduce negative feelings, which have been proven to have an impact on our physical health.

These findings have been confirmed in a study by the London School of Economics, who examined the relationship between volunteering and measures of happiness in a large group of American adults. They found the more people volunteered, the happier they were. Compared with people who never volunteered, the odds of being happy rose 7% among those who volunteered monthly, and 12% for people who volunteered every two to four weeks. Among weekly volunteers, 16% felt very happy, a hike in happiness, the report says, that is comparable to having an income of $75,000-$100,000 versus $20,000.

Good mental health translates to good physical health, and as such, doing good keeps us well. Scientists have proven that reducing stress helps stave off diseases, but a 2013 review of 40 international studies suggests that volunteering can actually add years to your life, with some evidence pointing to a 22% reduction in mortality. Other studies also suggest that the benefits of volunteering help lower blood pressure, reduce hypertension, and are good for the heart. And yet another study measured big reductions in those who suffered from chronic pain.

The bigger picture is that helping others builds relationships and communities. It helps us give a voice to our deeper identity and dignity as human beings. In turn this connects the microcosm of our lives to macrocosm of the universe, and naturally makes us feel good. As Stephen Post suggests, helping others can help us not just survive, but thrive amidst the challenges that life throws at us. “We can be anywhere, so long as we are helping others and caring for them. This is probably the one source of stability in our lives that we can truly depend on, and so in the end we are never really out of place.”

Click here to listen to Stephen Post on the benefits of helping others 

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