The Psychological Benefits of Volunteering

The Psychological Benefits of Volunteering

A personal perspective When I gave birth to my twins some 25 years ago, I told my husband “I want at least a year off before I think about going back to work”, and somehow that one year stretched into three. Then my third child arrived and the “going back to work” in any serious capacity was put on permanent hold as I made the most of being a stay-at-home Mum. Having had problems conceiving and the twins being born as the result of IVF treatment,  I was happy to be able to focus on raising the family I’d longed for, and we were lucky in that we could manage financially with me not working. However, being at home with small people did have its challenges as well as benefits, so it was important for me to do something outside of the bubble of family life. As soon as my youngest started at school, I started volunteering at our local Oxfam charity shop, sorting and pricing clothes that had been donated, ready for them to sell. I chose Oxfam because I have long supported charities that address needs in the developing world. It makes sense to me that I should give my time and money where the needs for basics that we take for granted are often unmet. Also, I like shops! Whilst I was at university, my parents bought a wool shop, and the first summer that my mother opened it, I really enjoyed helping out in the shop as her assistant.   First impressions The first thing I noticed at Oxfam was the benefit of being appreciated....
Kindness 2.0

Kindness 2.0

Kindness 2.0: going beyond the feel-good factor to true compassion. As an associate lecturer at Buckinghamshire New University one of my favourite parts of the job is marking one of the first assignments on the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology course. Students are instructed to choose a topic from within Positive Psychology related to Happiness and wellbeing, and then to investigate that subject by trying out one or more positive psychology interventions on themselves over the course of 5-6 weeks. In their marked assignment, they write about what they did and what they found, relating their experiences back to existing theories. It’s always fascinating to see the variety of subjects picked by different students and also heart-warming to read about their positive experiences and what they have learnt during the process.  Students might choose to write gratitude diaries, try meditation, wean themselves off social media, take walks in nature – or any of a number of different activities that have been shown to increase happiness and wellbeing when consciously practised. One of the topics that regularly comes up is practising Kindness to others.   Being kind to others makes us happy There is plenty of research in Positive Psychology literature about how being kind to others makes us happy. When we do something for another person, seeing or imagining their reaction can really give us a buzz, we feel good about ourselves and more connected to others, in addition to the benefit experienced by the other person. In one piece of research, participants were given a small sum of money (about £5 -£10) and told to spend it on...
The Problem With ‘Goals’ and Why Focusing on Your Values Will Help.

The Problem With ‘Goals’ and Why Focusing on Your Values Will Help.

When I was a new mother some 20+ years ago, Gina Ford published ‘The contented Little Baby Book” outlining her strict daily routines for parents and babies to follow, based on her experience as a maternity nurse. Opinions on the book split the world of new parents. Some of my friends saw it as a godsend – finally, they had a manual on how to manage their babies, along with detailed timings as to what to do and when. Others like me, took a more earth-mother approach, going with the flow and hating the idea of a strictly enforced routine. It was at that point in my life that it really struck me that maybe neither approach was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but what was important was to find an approach that suited the parents’ organisational style. Some people love lists, structure, routines and goals – others prefer a more meandering approach to life, going with the flow and pursuing what interests them at the time. Both approaches have pros and cons, and whatever our personal style is (and that may change over time and circumstances), we should embrace our strengths, but also be humble enough to realise that a different approach also has its strengths and at times we can learn something from that. Fast forward 20 years and whilst studying Snyder’s hope theory in Positive Psychology, I realised I had a problem with the word ‘goals’. Say ‘goal’ to me and it takes me back to working in IT in the 1980s and the acronym SMART – you will be more likely to meet a goal if it...
How Understanding Your Strengths Can Liberate You From Perfectionism

How Understanding Your Strengths Can Liberate You From Perfectionism

Character Strengths An important topic in the field of positive psychology is the study of strengths. The basic idea is that we are all different and have different strengths – thoughts, feelings or behaviours that come naturally to us and give us energy and a sense of satisfaction when we use them. For example, one person may be a great organiser, another might have a talent for creativity, or a great capacity for kindness to others. These strengths are often seen as virtues – desirable behaviours that benefit society. We all have a large number of different things that we can do, but we will have a few ‘top’ strengths that go some way to defining who we are, what we are best at, and linking to what motivates and engages us. In 2004 Peterson and Seligman published “The Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues” – a book in which they explained their research and expounded the idea that there were 6 categories of virtues that were shared across multiple societies, philosophies and religions over time; wisdom, courage, humanity, transcendence, justice and moderation. Within these categories sit a total of 24 character strengths which are regarded as universally desirable. For example, love, kindness and social intelligence sit under the category of humanity, the strengths of creativity, curiosity, judgement, love of learning and perspective sit under the virtue of wisdom. As part of the research, they developed a survey for people to take to find out which of these strengths were their top strengths, or signature strengths. If you are interested to discover your top strengths, you can take the...
How to be Happy: Four Myths Debunked

How to be Happy: Four Myths Debunked

The question of how to be happy, and how to live a good life has been kicking around for aeons. Back to when the Ancient Greeks were shooting the breeze in Athens, debating what type of happiness was best, there are written records of people discussing happiness and the ‘good life’. Even earlier than that, Confucius and Buddha were exploring their thoughts and teaching their ideas on these subjects, so it seems reasonable to assume that ever since homo sapiens has been thinking and talking these subjects have been up for discussion. More recently, mainstream psychology has embraced the idea of ‘Positive’ Psychology, investigating the science of happiness and what makes life worth living – a change of viewpoint from a previous focus in psychology which often looked how to ‘fix’ us when things aren’t going well.   What do we mean by happiness? Everyone has their own idea of happiness, and one of the interesting things I’ve found as I talk to people about it is how much the idea of happiness varies from person to person. Say “happiness” to some people and it makes them think of a transitory emotion, the feeling of excitement on Christmas day, a good night out with friends, or the warm contentment of feeling of the sun on their face. Others see it as something longer-lasting – the feeling of being content with their lives that they are meaningful and rich. In psychological terms, these two types of happiness are often referred to as Hedonia and Eudaemonia respectively, but a more accessible way to think about it may be to think about...