Charity is something that many of us practice. It plays upon the most basic of human emotions: sympathy. It is the ability to express sorrow at someone else’s misfortune. And from that expression, we find the motivation to give back, to help those in need and to ease their misfortune through the smallest acts of kindness. For many, an act of charity makes a person feel better. It fills one with warmth. But there are other dimensions to that feeling. There is more to giving back than that rush of happiness we get from indulging in a kind act. There is a sadness to giving back. Because when we give back, we’re exposed to a different facet of life that we’re not really used to seeing. We see another form of hardship, another kind of problem, another form of misfortune than the kind we’re likely to see in our social sphere. And that only makes things even more difficult. Because giving back is supposed to be a positive act, but instead it reveals negative undertones to the harsh realities of life.

Generous Professions, Depressing Outcomes

This sadness is something that can even take effect in the long term. Many of those who give back on a regular basis have experienced bouts of depression. Christopher Willard, a clinical psychologist at Tufts University, states that the amount of stress health care workers are exposed to can be enough to trigger depressive states. “Every day they are seeing sickness, trauma, and death and dealing with family members of patients,” Willard says. “It can shade one’s outlook on the whole that the world is a sadder place.” Social workers and those who work for the welfare of the poor and needy also find themselves caught in this spiral. It reaches a point where giving becomes totally draining. When you’re dealing with children or families that are truly suffering, you expose yourself to a whole other dimension of stress. Willard says the reasoning behind this is “Because social workers work with people who are so needy, it can be hard to not sacrifice too much to the job. I see that happen a lot with social workers and other caring professions, and they get really burned out pretty quickly.” In addition, 11 % of individuals who work in nursing homes reported experiencing bouts of depression. It’s clear that there are negative emotions associated with charity, and that it isn’t as emotionally gratifying as it might seem.

Finding the Middle Ground 

It’s clear that giving back isn’t a simple task. For one thing, the exposure it creates leaves an open wound within you that you’ll either have to choose to ignore or tend to with, no hope of it healing any time soon. Because the more we give out to charity, the more we become aware of the problems that exist in our society. And although this moves us to act more, to be kinder and to give more, we find ourselves by the same token caught in this loop of helping as much as we can and feeling drained because that help may not be enough. Our need to fix the world on the long term outshines our need to fix or work on helping people in the now. A small contribution we make might not be enough to end world hunger, or poverty or even achieve world peace. And therein lies the problem, the futility of the pursuit of this ideal. But perhaps we aren’t meant for these loftier goals. Perhaps helping a person in need is not the way to ending world poverty. Perhaps it is about bringing a glimmer of hope to a person’s life, or it’s about connecting with your fellow man. Whatever the reason, we should not stop acts of charity solely due to the futility of the outcome.

Why We Shouldn’t Ignore the Sadness

With that in mind, we should use this feeling of futility not as a means to discourage us but as way to motivate us. The world might be a sad place as Willard suggests, but if we continue to act as though nothing will ever make it better then it won’t get better. And although we can’t directly see the results of our charitable acts in the grand scheme of things, they are still significant. Everything we do has a ripple effect; a small act of kindness doesn’t end at the source. So before we dismiss ourselves we should think twice, because a helping hand does more than just give you an emotional pay-off. It has real world significance. And once you realize you are making an impact however small, you learn to appreciate your little contribution to making the world a better place. A little goes a long way is not just a saying, and exposure to that sadness will help you come to terms with the harsh realities of the world in the long run.