How Charity Can Help You Beat the Winter Blues

November 07, 2017
7 min read

Charitable Impact

The days are shorter, the nights are longer, and everything is colder. You might find it tough getting started in the morning—especially when the sun isn’t even up yet.

A lot of people feel bummed out this time of year. According to one study, 35 per cent of Canadians report getting the “winter blues.”

So, what can you do to fend off Jack Frost’s bad vibes?

The way you spend your time has a huge effect on how you feel. But when it comes to combatting the winter doldrums, many people overlook a proven strategy: helping others.

The numbers are in, and donating time, energy or money to others in need is a great way to improve how you feel. It may just be the secret to getting good vibes this winter.

Let’s look at what science has to say about the positive effects of charity on our well-being. Then, we’ll explore some strategies for using it to beat the winter blues.

Giving is Good for You

“Virtue is its own reward,” goes the saying. That may sound hackneyed, but recent research has proven it true. Which, if you’re trying to shake off the doldrums, could be good news.

Giving Increases Life Satisfaction

According to a study done in Germany, those who put time into supporting charity experience higher levels of life satisfaction.

The study was carried out in the context of East Germany’s collapse. With the loss of East Germany’s infrastructure of volunteer work, many Germans were no longer engaged in regular charitable behaviour.

At the same time, some East Germans did retain their volunteer positions. The study showed that, controlling for other factors, those who continued to make volunteering part of their everyday lives reported greater overall life satisfaction than those who did not.

An additional report, this time focusing on British subjects, backs up the hypothesis that volunteering improves life satisfaction. However, the British researchers found that the positive personal impact of volunteering is reduced in relation to other satisfaction-producing factors.

So, for instance, if someone is in a higher income bracket, or faces less mental and emotional strain in their day-to-day life, volunteering is likely to have less of an impact than it would on someone with a “harder” life. Finding time to volunteer could give you the boost you need.

Giving Activates Your Reward Centres

Beyond harder-to-quantify effects like happiness or life satisfaction, giving also activates reward centres in the brain. The release of dopamine and endorphins is triggered by sex, drugs, exercise, gambling, food, and other delights; acts of charity have a similar effect.

A set of studies on the neural effects of charitable acts supports this. Most important, though, is evidence that the benefits of giving increase when donors are able to exercise choice.

The Power of Choice

As fully outlined in this article from Psychology Today, the neural-effects study had subjects perform an economic exercise. They were given money, and that same money was donated to a local food bank.

One group of subjects had a portion of money taken from them involuntarily. Another got to choose how much they donated.

Both groups showed increased activities in their rewards centers, but in the subjects who choose how much they gave, the activity was more intense.

Choosing how you give to charity, and playing an active role in making a positive impact, will make you feel better. .

Giving Complements Other Positive Behaviour

A paper published in the Journal of Positive Psychology demonstrated that, when part of a group of 14 “fundamental” happiness-increasing behaviours—such as focusing on the present, socializing, and trying not to worry—performing charitable acts improved subjects’ happiness.

This boost in happiness depended on all of the “fundamentals” being performed on a regular basis, although not so regularly as to become tiresome.

If you personally consider yourself a generous person who is engaged with their community, you’re more likely to feel happy by donating to charity or volunteering. And if you consider generosity a positive trait, giving can reinforce a positive conception of yourself, and improve your self-regard. It’s a feedback loop that benefits everyone.

How to Effectively Give to Beat the Winter Blues

When you combine activities that help alleviate season bummers with ones that help other people, you double the power of the good vibes coming your way.

Get Out There

Exercise, fresh air, and sunlight—even watery, winter sunlight—are good for your body and your brain. Try finding a volunteer opportunity that lets you get outside on a regular basis.

For instance, environmental stewardship groups often hold events in which volunteers work together outdoors. The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup gets people out to their local beaches, where they can learn about the impact of litter on coastal environments, and make a positive impact by cleaning up the area.

And whether or not you belong to a community garden, there may be opportunities to get your hands dirty helping out with one. Some of these gardens provide learning opportunities for people in need, or donate a portion of their produce to charity.

While winter is typically a dormant time in gardens, the shoulder seasons (Fall and Spring) are times for harvesting and planting (respectively.) Even during off-months, there’s cleanup, repairs and prep to be done. Vancouverites can take a look at UBC Farm if they’re interested in that kind of work.

Have Fun with Friends

As long as you’re open to the possibility, just about any volunteering activity can be a great way to meet new people.

But helping out with charity can also be a way to bring together friends or family, and shake yourself out of Winter “hibernation mode.”

Activities you do together can help to raise funds for charity, ensuring you benefit from both the warm glow of helping others, and the pleasure of a social occasion.

For instance, you could hold a charity wine tasting night. Have every participant contribute a bottle, plus a donation to your charity of choice. As a sweeter, holiday-themed option, gather your friends together to build a gingerbread house, then auction it off on social media for charity.

CHIMP giving groups are designed for this kind of fundraising activity. You can learn more about how to fundraise with them by checking out our article How to Boost your CHIMP Giving Group.

The social benefits of events like these extend beyond the date of the occasion itself. Think of all the grunt work—planning, coordinating with people, picking up supplies—as means of strengthening your relationships with your friends, getting out of the house, and fighting the urge to hermit yourself away for the winter.

Work to your Strengths

While volunteering with charities can positively impact you, juggling too many obligations in your day-to-day life might lead to extra stress. Depending on what your job, friends and loved ones expect from you, it may not be practical to add volunteer shifts to your weekly routine.

Don’t underestimate the benefit of simply donating funds to causes you care about. Doing the research to better understand how your money will be used (for instance, in disaster relief) and the most effective way to donate is one good way to connect with a cause. Another is to consult with your friends and family, to learn about the causes that are important to them, and how they personally work to make an impact.

Try to set realistic long- and short-term goals. How much will you give? Maybe every month, you will learn about and support a different charity in your community. Or maybe you can resolve to learn the story of someone who benefits from philanthropy—and support a cause that affects them.

Don’t let winter get you down. Use it as an opportunity to make an impact on the world around you, and get out there and meet new people.

How are you using charity to connect with others, improve your well-being, and make an impact? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter.