How to Give Back on Martin Luther King Jr. Day
As Martin Luther King Jr. Day draws near and talks of service projects are more pervasive, you may be wondering if you, too, should commemorate the day with some good acts. The answer is yes.
Here's why: The federal holiday, which takes place annually on the third Monday in January (January 17 in 2022), is a National Day of Service, and, thanks to Congress, has been since 1994. The civil rights icon, who was assassinated in 1968, recognized the power of giving back. In fact, in his 1957 "Conquering Self-Centeredness" speech, Dr. King said, "An individual has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow horizons of his particular individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."
That may be one reason why comedian and TV writer Ricky Smith, founder of Random Acts of Kindness Everywhere (R.A.K.E.), a nonprofit that aims to encourage paying it forward, says that volunteering gives people a sense of purpose. "It makes you feel like you matter, that you are not necessarily helpless or hopeless," he says. "It makes you feel like you are part of something bigger, gives you a sense of community."
"The habit of helping others sharpens our sense of purpose, shares our expertise and widens our network of those working toward the same good end," adds Kimberly Jeffries Leonard, PhD, national president of The Links, Incorporated, an international nonprofit service organization comprised of more than 16,000 women of African descent.
The Benefits of Giving Back
While we may just see a good act as something we do for others, the truth is that it affects the giver, too. From making you happier to extending your life to slowing cognitive decline, volunteerism is the holy grail of health. A study in Psychology and Aging also revealed that those who performed at least 200 hours of service in a 12-month period were less likely to develop hypertension compared to their non-volunteering counterparts.
Feeling overwhelmed right about now? Volunteering can help thwart that, too.
"It likely reduces stress levels in those that volunteer and often helps increase your social network which, in the long-run, also reduces anxiety and enhances overall life satisfaction," explains Erica Richards, MD, PhD, chair and medical director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., and assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Johns Hopkins Medicine. "Decreased reports of depressive symptoms have also been seen in people with a recent history of service to others," she says. Dr. Richards has also seen the therapeutic benefits of service firsthand in her patients.
Who Can Give Back
Anyone. Seriously. Volunteering is something that everyone can and should do. And if you have kids, get them in on the action, too.
"Volunteering and community service can help children and adolescents develop key social-emotional skills, including social awareness and empathy," explains nationally certified school psychologist Erin A. Harper, PhD, NCSP, an assistant professor of school psychology at Texas A&M University-Commerce and author of the comedic book Dear Mom, You Don't Get to Have Nice Things. "Volunteering can also foster a sense of community responsibility and help children and adolescents feel like important members of their community. It's a great way for families to spend time together and step outside of their own personal or family issues," Harper says.
How Can I Volunteer?
"The life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. demand so much more of us," Jeffries Leonard says. "By building upon the concept of 'a day on, not a day off,' we continue the impact of Dr. King in this generation and for those to come."
Feeling inspired to give back? We thought so. Here are a few ways you can do just that.