By Kate Stone Lombardi
As the holidays approach, magazines are filled with tips on how to stay healthy. Stressed? Be super-organized, Martha Stewart-style: start baking and freezing months ahead of time, and you’ll be able to enjoy a relaxed holiday in your lovingly decorated home. Alternately: Stressed? Take the anti-Martha approach. Let go of perfection. Take short cuts. Your house is a home, not a movie set. Stop focusing on the externals and enjoy the real meaning of the holidays.
Inevitably, there’s advice on avoiding holiday weight gain. You know the drill: drink three glasses of water before an office party. Have a strategy for cocktail hour, and focus on the crudités. These pieces tend to be accompanied by graphs comparing the calories in a glass of spiked eggnog to those in a seltzer and diet cranberry cocktail. And of course, don’t drop your exercise routine no matter how hectic your schedule.
Look, I read all this stuff myself, and personally, I boomerang between Martha and “to hell with it” each year. But let me offer yet a different prescription for a healthy, happy holiday. Do good-feel good. Think beyond your body, your house and even your family. It’s a big world out there, and it needs your help.
Now for the full disclosure part of our program: hunger is my issue. For many years I have served on the board of The Mount Kisco Interfaith Food Pantry.* If you think hunger is not a local problem, you are mistaken. Last year, our Pantry served more than 20,000 people. This year we’re on track to serve 25,000. We are the only area food pantry that offers regular, weekly distributions. If you visited on a distribution day, you’d see your neighbors: pregnant women, women with toddlers in tow, elderly men and women living on fixed incomes, pushing metal carts to carry their groceries. Single young men who live in crowded apartments without cooking facilities. People whose medical crises have eaten up all their savings. And yes, some folks from Chappaqua, who are barely holding on to their homes, and whose cupboards are shockingly bare.
Our pantry provides each household in need enough groceries for at least three days’ worth of meals. As a “choice” pantry, we offer clients a selection of fresh eggs, frozen meats, non-perishable staples, and, at least twice a month, fresh produce. We provide other services too–home delivery, a mobile food pantry, registration for nutrition programs, and more.
My plug here is not for our Pantry alone, but for the dozens of local not-for-profits that need not only people’s money, but also their time and talent. Your thing may be volunteering at a hospital. Mentoring a troubled teenager. Working in a parenting program at a prison. Furnishing a room at a domestic violence shelter. Visiting elderly folks at a nursing home who would otherwise have no company.
But here’s the kicker. If you carve out part of your life to serve others– it’s good for you! Studies demonstrate that altruism helps you lead a happier and healthy life. Recent neurological research reveals that when we help others, it lights up the primitive part of our brain – the same area that lets us experience pleasure through eating and sex. Scientists believe that giving to others buffers stress, through a complex interaction of the brain, immune system and hormones.
In one study of thousands of volunteers across the country, 43% reported they felt stronger and more energetic from volunteering; 28% experienced a feeling of inner warmth; 22% felt calmer and less depressed; 21% experienced greater feelings of self worth, and 13% experienced fewer aches and pains.
“If you could create a pill with the same results as indicated by the survey of American volunteers, it would be a best seller overnight,” says Dr. Stephen Post, Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University and author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping.
Benefits start young–volunteering in adolescence increases self-esteem and protects against anti-social behavior and substance abuse–and they are lifelong. Amazingly, altruism is associated with a substantial reduction in mortality rates and is linked to longevity.
So this holiday season–and all year long– take good care of yourself. And do it by helping others.
Kate Stone Lombardi is a journalist and the author of The Mama’s Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger (Penguin Group USA). She asks everyone to consider the gift of giving and, with regard to *The Pantry, she notes: “We accept food donations, but please check guidelines on our website, mountkiscofoodpantry.org. We especially love financial contributions, because for every $1 donated, we can buy $4 worth of groceries at The Food Bank For Westchester, where we have enhanced buying power through government lines of credit.”