Depression and Volunteering

Depression and Volunteering April 11, 2021

A number of studies have shown that a lack of social connectedness causes depression. Volunteering fosters a sense of connection by having people interacting with others in valuable ways and being appreciated, which can help depression, particularly in those who are already in therapy. Interconnectedness is at the very heart of Hermeticism, the study of which could prove useful in reducing depression.

I recently wrote a blog, “Mental Health: An Ancient Greek Approach” where I touched on the prevalence of depression, and felt that I should explore a couple of non-drug related approaches to treating it.


Volunteering when depressed

Members of the United States Navy serve the homeless at Dorothy’s Soup Kitchen, Salinas, California in 2009.

On Jun 18, 2016, Psychology Today uploaded an article titled, “Volunteer When Depressed? The Life You Save May Be Your Own” by physician Susan J. Noonan, MD, who is the author of Managing Your Depression: What You Can Do To Feel Better, and When Someone You Know Has Depression: Words to Say and Things to Do:

“The first thing to know is that when you volunteer you commit to make yourself available to a person or an organization for a period of time, say 2 or 4 hours per week, on a regular, ongoing basis.  You do it in small steps, not all at once.  You become accountable to others for showing up, on time and ready to function at some moderate level.  They will depend on you for that.  It’s a big step.  This was good for my depression, and I’ll bet yours as well.  The person or organization does not know you, doesn’t know that you don’t feel well and are feeling depressed.  It’s actually possible to fake it, to ‘act as if’ you’re feeling well for short periods of time, and establish new relationships with new people.

Second is that when you volunteer your time on a regular basis it gives you a sense of purpose and accomplishment that perhaps you may have forgotten.  You feel better about yourself and your self-confidence improves.  You come to feel needed and appreciated for what you do for others.  That is important to have, and I found that it’s a different feeling from when you have a paid job.  You can also learn new skills that you can use in other areas of your life.  Volunteering gives you the opportunity to think of something and someone else other than being swallowed up by your own overwhelmingly depressed, negative thoughts.  Seeing the problems that other people have made my own problems seem less intense in comparison, at least for a short while.  Having lived through depression also gave me greater patience and empathy in my volunteer interactions with others.”


There are a number of academic studies which show that volunteering helps depression, particular among the elderly. Here’s one such article:

Volunteering and depression: the role of psychological and social resources in different age groups

“There are a number of reasons why volunteering might yield mental health benefits, especially to older people. Volunteer work improves access to social and psychological resources, which are known to counter negative moods such as depression and anxiety. Analysis of three waves of data from the Americans’ Changing Lives data set (1986, 1989, 1994) reveals that volunteering does lower depression levels for those over 65, while prolonged exposure to volunteering benefits both populations. Some of the effect of volunteering on depression among the elderly is attributable to the social integration it encourages, but the mediating effect of psychological resources is very small. Volunteering for religious causes is more beneficial for mental health than volunteering for secular causes but, again, the effect is confined to the elderly.”


While volunteering is of particular benefit to the elderly, there are also indications that it is of benefit to adolescents:

Contribution to Family, Friends, School, and Community Is Associated With Fewer Depression Symptoms in Adolescents – Mediated by Self-Regulation and Academic Performance

“The tendency to get involved in helping one’s family, friends, school, and community has many potential benefits such as greater compassion, concern for others, and social responsibility. Research interest in the benefits of contribution in adolescents has increased recently, but there are not many studies examining the effect of contribution on adolescents’ mental health. The present study focused on whether the contribution is associated with fewer self-rated depression symptoms in adolescents. We further tested whether self-regulation and academic performance can have a mediating role in this association.  …  “


On January 27, 2015, Harley Therapy Counselling Blog uploaded an article, “Volunteering – 5 Reasons Why It Really Does Help Depression”:

“Give to others is now one of the five recommended ‘Steps to Mental Wellbeing’ promoted by the UK’s National Health Service. ‘Acts such as volunteering at your local community centre can improve your mental wellbeing,’ claims the NHS website.

According to a recent research project at Exeter Medical School that collated evidence from 40 different studies over the last 20 years, yes. They, too, concluded that volunteering led to lower depression and increased wellbeing.”

Of the five reasons cited, the one of greatest interest is the first:

“1. Volunteering involves the power of social connection.

Despite our modern lives that seem focussed on the ‘cult of self’, humans are social animals who need interaction to flourish. Without it, you risk feeling misunderstood, severe loneliness, and low self-confidence.

In fact lack of social connectedness has long been proven to be a cause for depression, such as in this study from the University of Minnesota.

Volunteering, on the other hand, has us interacting with others in valuable ways and being appreciated.

And the sense of connection volunteering generates might help your depression in a surprising way if you are already in therapy. The above study also found that the more connected you felt, the more likely it was you’d get results from your therapy sessions.

  1. Volunteering can create a change in thought patterns. …
  2. Volunteering changes your perspective. …
  3. Volunteering has been linked to a raise in self-esteem. …
  4. Volunteering leads to better overall health. … “


To me, the most significant issue here is taking the focus off the individual and fostering a sense of social connectedness so as to effect improvements in cases of depression. The philosophical tradition of Hermeticism also teaches interconnectedness, but it goes well beyond that within society.

Volunteers sweep the boardwalk in Brooklyn after the 2012 Hurricane Sandy



Hermes Trismegistus

Hermetic philosophy, which is based on the works of Hermes Trismegistus, meaning ‘Thrice-Great’ Hermes.

It is debated why Hermes Trismegistus was called ‘Thrice-Great’ but it is thought that it is because he knows three parts of the wisdom of the universe: alchemy (the operation of the sun), astrology (the operation of the stars) and theurgy (the operation of the gods). Hermes credited the creation of astrology to Zoroaster, founder of the Zoroastrian religion and Middle-Eastern philosopher living sometime in the second half of the 2nd millennium BC.

Hermes Trismegistus is considered the founder of science, religion, mathematics, geometry, alchemy, philosophy, medicine and magic. He is a combination of the Egyptian God Thoth of wisdom, learning and communications and the Greek God Hermes, messenger of the gods.

He is also credited to have written somewhere between 20,000 (Seleucus) to 36,525 (Manetho) works, of which 42 were kept the great Library of Alexandria, which was destroyed multiple times. Unfortunately, but against all odds, a small handful of Hermes’ texts remain today, most of which are compiled into the Corpus Hermeticum.”


Author Dr Karen Ralls states that:

“Very briefly, Hermeticism  …  is described in the Hermetic writings as a worldview of One Reality, where all dichotomies, all distinctions between body and soul, spirit and matter, etc., are integrated as a part of one whole. Everything was seen as being interconnected with everything else, and such relationships rested on the principle of analogy. Reality, in the Hermetic way of thinking, is ultimately holistic and is a vital, living web of correspondences. Thus, the famous Hermetic maxim of ‘As above, so below’. The aim of Hermeticism, like Gnosticism, was the deification or rebirth of man through the knowledge (gnosis) of the one transcendent God, the world, and humanity.”


“The Hermetic tradition represents a non-Christian lineage of Hellenistic Gnosticism. The tradition and its writings date to at least the first century B.C.E., and the texts we possess were all written prior to the second century C.E. The surviving writings of the tradition, known as the Corpus Hermeticum (the “Hermetic body of writings”) were lost to the Latin West after classical times, but survived in eastern Byzantine libraries. Their rediscovery and translation into Latin during the late-fifteenth century by the Italian Renaissance court of Cosimo de Medici, provided a seminal force in the development of Renaissance thought and culture. These eighteen tracts of the Corpus Hermeticum, along with the Perfect Sermon (also called the Asclepius), are the foundational documents of the Hermetic tradition.”


A study of Hermeticism focusing on interconnectedness rather than on the self could go a long way towards alleviating depression, especially in conjunction with other modalities, such as volunteering.


Tony Mierzwicki

Author of Hellenismos: Practicing Greek Polytheism Today and Graeco-Egyptian Magick: Everyday Empowerment.

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