Many of us are struggling not only with our little corner of the world, but with the messy and imperfect world at large.

The pandemic, inflation and economic instability, the war in Ukraine, and witnessing or experiencing first-hand violence, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism are only a sampling of things that can lead us to feel down, powerless, and hopeless.

The mental health literature is clear, however: when we help others in times of pain, we help others AND ourselves. Whether you choose to smile at a stranger, donate a dollar, call your elected officials, or quit your comfortable job to devote yourself to a cause you care about, every little thing adds up. No effort is too small. Each positive action we take creates ripples out into the world we will never know about, just like a pebble tossed into a pond.

It is also important to recognize that we can’t help others all the time. Overexposure to all that is painful in the world works against us rather than for us. Each of us has an individualized limit to how much news, social media, and others’ emotional pain we can productively absorb. We need enough exposure to motivate us to help others, but not so much that we become paralyzed by helplessness, guilt that we have it better, or emotional overload. 

When you need a timeout to focus on just your little world to regroup, that’s okay. Think of this like the “put your oxygen mask on before you help the person next to you” directive from flight attendants on airplanes. 

If you’re ready to experiment with how helping others can help you, the list below can help you get started. It obviously cannot be inclusive of all important causes and worthwhile organizations or ideas, but as part of my own effort to help others, I will update it as regularly as I can in response to unfolding world events.

Free ways you can make a difference today

  • Hold a door for someone.
  • Pick up trash in your neighborhood.
  • Offer to run an errand or complete a household task for a family member, friend, or neighbor. 
  • Volunteer your time (Google “volunteering near me”).
  • Meditate, pray, or engage in another spiritual practice meaningful to you.
  • Donate blood.
  • Contact your elected officials (find their contact information here).