According to a recent survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal agencies, more than a third of U.S. adults have signs of clinical anxiety or depression. This hasn’t been helped by the Coronavirus pandemic, which has impacted people’s mental wellbeing as well as their physical health and led to feelings of stress and isolation.
Some have reached out to help those worst affected by volunteering; interestingly, however, new research suggests that volunteers are also improving their own mental health and happiness by doing so.
Referring to a study published this year by the Journal of Happiness Studies, based on data from nearly 70,000 research participants in the United Kingdom, Greater Good Magazine wrote, “Compared to people who didn’t volunteer, people who had volunteered in the past year were more satisfied with their lives and rated their overall health as better. Additionally, the researchers found that people who volunteered more frequently experienced greater benefits: Those who volunteered at least once a month reported better mental health than participants who volunteered infrequently or not at all.”
This research is interesting to ISKCON devotees because it aligns with the Vaishnava philosophy that service satisfies the soul.
“Ultimately, our tradition teaches that to be completely satisfied, we need to serve God, or Krishna,” comments ISKCON Communications Director Anuttama Dasa. “And the highest service we can do for others is to help them connect with God. That is certainly the long-term solution to life’s problems. But in our day-to-day activities, serving others by helping them out of whatever distress they are undergoing is also part of having a service mood.”
During the pandemic, ISKCON devotees in India, the UK, Hungary, Argentina and other countries have voluntarily helped healthcare workers and those in need by distributing millions of prasadam meals. Some devotees have distributed free masks. Others have helped their own devotee community by providing COVID-19 safety resources and free online seminars, classes, kirtans, and children’s entertainment and activities.
Sruti Sagara Das, who serves as president of the Krishna House in Gainesville, Florida, shared his personal insight on volunteering and its benefits. Sruti manages Krishna Lunch for Healthcare Heroes, which delivers prasadam, sanctified vegetarian lunches to doctors and nurses, and Krishna CARES, which delivers lunches to the vulnerable, especially the elderly, and those economically impacted by the pandemic.
“Even though we don’t know these people personally, by reaching out to them and offering something from our hearts, we feel a connection,” he says. “We are all parts and parcels of God, Krishna, and when we serve each other we feel that common connection.”
Whether dropping lunches off outside the door for doctors and nurses, or speaking with people while social distancing and wearing masks, the service is a very personal interaction for Sruti Sagara and the other Krishna House volunteers.
Krishna House president Sruti Sagara Das (in white) and Arianna after delivering prasadam for the Krishna CARES program
“It’s like, ‘we cooked these meals for you, and we really want to support you in these times,’” Sruti Sagara says. “It’s very uplifting and definitely positively affects the mental health of both the volunteers and the recipients.”
He adds: “The nature of the soul is to do service – service to God, and service to others. So we all feel satisfied, we feel like we are doing the right thing. It’s just very nourishing, and very satisfying, because that’s the nature of the soul. To serve, and to be able to look beyond the needs of our own body and mind, and see how we can help others.”
In terms of depression and anxiety, while volunteering isn’t recommended to replace therapy or other professional care, connecting with a cause based on a higher purpose can help people to see beyond their immediate problems.
“One of our volunteers was coming out of a relationship, and it was tough for him,” says Sruti Sagara. “But being able to focus on giving to others helped him focus beyond himself, and helped him process his emotions as well.”
The effects can be very practical. ISKCON Hungary spokesperson Gandharvika Prema Dasi, who has worked with Food For Life for fifteen years, explains that underprivileged people who benefitted from receiving prasadam often volunteer to help serve prasadam themselves.
“Often they have lost their self-confidence, the feeling that they are needed, or that they are useful for society,” she says. “By volunteering, they feel needed and able to help others, although they themselves are still in need. It changes a lot in their way of life, their thinking, their lifestyle. Many are able to find a new job after gaining the self-confidence from doing voluntary work.”
Often, the benefit derived from services such as distributing prasadam is so powerful that it becomes infectious. One biker who became a volunteer for Food For Life in Hungary took on the responsibility of managing the program every Saturday, and has been doing it for the past fifteen years. “A few years ago his son, who had been three years old when he started, finished school and joined Food For Life too!” Gandharvika Prema says.
Volunteering for Vaishnavas also helps develop the service attitude that is integral to devotional life. When devotees bring that service mood back into their day-to-day relationships and devotional lives they can be doubly benefitted.
“I don’t think we should ever diminish our activities that are directly Krishna conscious,” Anuttama says. “But we can also be indirectly Krishna conscious, all day, every day. Devotees are not supposed to live in a vacuum – we’re supposed to interact with people, and bring our Krishna consciousness and our service attitude and volunteer mood into everything we do.”
The ultimate example of this is ISKCON Founder-Acarya Srila Prabhupada. A simple example is provided in Volume 2 of the Srila Prabhupada Lilamrita. Prabhupada told the early devotees living at the 26 2nd Avenue temple to treat the landlord, Mr. Chutey, like their father. Meanwhile Prabhupada himself would assist Mr. Chutey with some of his tasks, including even helping him take out the neighbors’ trash.
As Lord Chaitanya says in Sri Siksastakam, one should “be ready to offer all respect to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the Holy Name of the Lord constantly.”
“I’ve experienced in my own life that my mind can become very self-absorbed and self-centered,” Anuttama says. “Usually when that happens, I find myself less enthusiastic and moody. But if I meditate on just being a servant and doing what’s necessary to help others, to serve the temple, and to serve the community, I definitely feel much happier.”
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