Sometimes life sends you the good stuff – heart-warming moments that leave you smiling despite yourself. But you can go out and get that feel-good happy stuff for yourself. How? By doing something for someone else.

People who give freely of their time and energy – environmental activists, foster parents, volunteer workers and stray-dog saviours – are selfless sorts and admirable, to be sure.

But, says volunteer fire-fighter Olivia Rose-Innes, don’t be too impressed. Beyond their altruism one of the reasons for getting out there and doing some good is the personal feel-good – or feel-better –factor. Not that there’s anything wrong with receiving while you give.

Olivia, a health journalist in her “real” life, points out the compelling evidence from numerous studies showing that volunteering can boost your immune system and lower your risk of heart disease and depression.

There’s also something called “helper’s high” – a feeling of mild euphoria, similar to a runner’s “high” – that arises when you help others by giving of yourself.

Here are five magic mood-lifters that you can get by giving:

    1. Give handmade gifts. It’s fine to present your host or hostess with a bottle of wine when invited for dinner but homemade biscuits or a homegrown chilli plant have so much more impact. Why? Because they represent time – the modern world’s scarcest commodity – and show you’ve done more than just stop at the shops. This creates a special feeling for you as well as the recipient.

    1. Donate your skills to make someone else’s life easier. Many Australian institutions are feeling the pain of tight budgets and tough economic times. Schools, retirement homes, religious institutions, hospitals and animal shelters… many have hard-working committees struggling to make their funds stretch further. Whether you’re a handyman, a gardener, an accountant, an organiser or a really good listener when chatting to a lonely person, find out where there’s a need and get stuck in. It will open your eyes.

    1. Give someone an unexpected hug. If you’ve ever needed one yourself, you don’t need to be told why.

    1. Volunteer for something exciting. Olivia loves the drama of tackling bushfires. And this drama – with its considerable sprinkling of danger – is often a draw card for volunteer mountain rescuers, sea rescuers and paramedics too. But for those who aren’t up for frontline derring-do, there are critical (though less dramatic) roles to play in support teams such as manning the phones. Whatever your involvement, you’ll get access to a network of interesting, committed people and contribute to an essential public service.

    1. Make contact. As life rushes by and self-absorption levels soar, we seldom notice as friends and family fade into the wallpaper of our lives. So resolve to make contact once a week with someone you care about but seldom see – even if you need to budget for the cost of a call to London or the time it takes to write a long e-mail. Love, actually, is what matters in the end. And love needs the energy of attention to keep all of us feeling good.

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