Nancy Cramer of Vancouver volunteers in the gift shop at Portland Providence Medical Center. She also volunteers to spend time with dying patients.
Volunteering can be a two-way gift.
A donation of time, or something more material, can benefit the donor as much as the recipient.
It turns out that it really can be better to give than to receive.
It's certainly a seasonal concept, said Jim Mol, a psychologist at Providence Portland Medical Center.
However, "It's hitting on something huge in mental health: the do-good/feel-good phenomenon," Mol continued.
"Even observing someone extend a kindness improves a person's mood," Mol said. And, it's more likely that the observer will also perform an act of kindness
It isn't just an emotional boost, Mol said; there also can be physical results every bit as beneficial as, say, from jogging.
In this sort of interaction, a person visits someone less fortunate to deliver a Christmas gift or food basket. When the recipient expresses gratitude, it usually generates positive feelings on both sides.
Three generations of a Vancouver family can vouch for the effect, which is why it's become a Christmas tradition for Terina Crandall. The Vancouver woman learned about holiday giving from her parents, and now she is sharing it with her husband and their kids.
Crandall said she was in junior high when her parents, Craig and Vicky Hogman, got the family involved in a project dubbed "Santa's Posse." Personnel from the Clark County Sheriff's Department organized an annual gift-giving campaign that's now drawing much wider community participation.
"It's good to go into the community and give," Crandall said. "My kids have an absolute blast, and we like that too."
Her oldest daughter, Larissa Crandall, concurs.
"Giving presents makes me happy," the 8-year-old girl said. "I think it makes them happy. They say, 'Thank you,' and smile."
The program is a way to connect with the community on a wider level, said Vicky Hogman, who was helping her grandkids wrap presents Thursday night.
"We've been fortunate and have had family around to help us through the holidays. A lot of time we couldn't afford presents, and our family kicked in," Vicky Hogman said. "A lot of people don't have that connection, and are totally and completely on their own.
"When women cry and hug us and say how grateful they are, I can't even explain how that connects you," she said.
It doesn't have to be a Christmas project, of course. Nancy Cramer of Vancouver volunteers weekly in the gift shop at Portland Providence Medical Center. It's her second volunteer opportunity at Providence, after starting with an end-of-life program.
In three-hour shifts, "You sit with patients who have no family or friends, who have less than 48 hours to live," Cramer said. "You know they're not alone when they pass, and you feel so much better. When I get an opportunity, I still volunteer for them."
Derek Creager, another Providence volunteer from Vancouver, said he gets to share the joy when he helps a patient check out of the hospital.
"I get to see them at their happiest," said Creager, who plans to become a nurse. "I don't think I've ever met someone who was disappointed when they get to leave."
Volunteers benefit from a decrease in stress hormones, said Mol, Providence's director of behavioral health, but there is more to it than that.
Researchers have compared people who volunteer with people of the same age who don't. Volunteering can produce the same physical benefits as jogging or not smoking, Mol said.
Research on volunteers is part of a relatively new area study called positive psychology, Mol said.
"Psychology has been thought of as a science of sickness -- different ways the human condition can go awry," Mol said. "There is a lot of growing interest in positive psychology, how we choose to see things," and the roles altruism and philanthropy can play in mental health.