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What It Means to Donate Joy

When people think about helping the homeless, their minds typically go straight to meeting physical needs: food, shelter, coats, hygiene items, etc. While those things are certainly crucial for our homeless friends, and those needs are always there, we often discount the value of lifting peoples’ spirits. Much less time is spent thinking about how we can provide moments of joy, surprise, and fun for the homeless and hurting. 

The gap is likely a product of our society’s need to feel productive and practical in our helping. In most areas of our lives, we place more value on practical things that we can see – things for which we can observe and track our impact. We feel if we use our time, money and energy on things that don’t necessarily advance a person’s life long-term or help them physically survive, that we’re wasting it on things that don’t matter. But research shows fun is a basic human need.

According to psychiatrist William Glasser’s Choice Theory, there are five basic human needs: survival, love and belonging, power/self-worth, autonomy, and fun. Research has proven time and time again the need for fun (or “play”) in our lives if we want to maintain not only our mental health but our physical health as well. 

“Play” constitutes purposeless fun. It’s the enjoyment in the moment that matters; there is no end game. Simply the joy of experiencing whatever it is you’re doing. In her book “The Gifts of Imperfection,” researcher Brené Brown, Ph.D. calls play a “critical component of wholehearted living,” but she adds that we’re actually really bad at it. Play, as we talked about before, doesn’t usually qualify as “practical,” so we don’t value it as much as we should. 

“Spending time doing purposeless activities is rare. In fact, for many of us it sounds like an anxiety attack waiting to happen,” Brown says.

But there’s certainly value in play. So much, in fact, that it can “facilitate deep connections between strangers and cultivate healing,” writes Margarita Tartakovsky, MS in a medically reviewed post for PsychCentral. It lowers stress hormones, builds resilience and actually increases productivity and creativity, reports NBC News.

In my most recent episode of the Real Hope podcast, I sat down with Nashville Predators CEO Sean Henry. Nashville’s NHL team has one of the most enthusiastic fan bases I’ve ever encountered, and Sean says it’s simply because they connect with people in the community and let the fans truly lead the way. One way they connect with the community is by giving back to the people in it, like giving game tickets to our homeless friends. 

Yes – the Nashville Predators give free hockey tickets to some of our homeless friends. Can you imagine? What a gift! You might think, “shouldn’t they be donating clothing or food?” and the Nashville Predators Foundation certainly does those things. (They even provided a playground for our women’s shelter!) But as we are learning, the value of joy, surprise and anticipating a fun event is much higher than we might expect. 

Getting to go to a Preds game – which are uniquely high-energy, joyful experiences – meets many of our basic needs, according to Glasser’s theory. It’s fun – purposeless play that exists only for the enjoyment of the experience. It provides belonging. When our friends are at a game, they’re part of the group. They’re a fan just like anyone else. They can high five their neighbor when the team scores a goal or yell at the ref when they make a bad call. It’s an opportunity for autonomy and self-worth – they walk in with everyone else, ticket in hand. These game experiences are so much more than trite frivolity. They are rich with meaning and joy, and they provide the unique excitement of anticipation – something to look forward to, which many of our homeless friends don’t get to experience day-to-day.

The past year has taught us many things, but one certain lesson is that the need for anticipation is very real. Our souls crave the opportunity to look forward to something enjoyable. An empty calendar with nothing on the horizon – no trips, concerts, family visiting, you name it – makes the day-to-day more monotonous. Nothing to mark the passage of time, celebrate milestones or take a break from your hard work.

Research backs up these feelings we’ve had for months since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2018 study published in Frontiers of Psychology found that “the anticipation process to future desired events correlates to human well-being.” Studies have also shown that the anticipation of a vacation actually indicates higher levels of happiness than the post-vacation feelings:

“In a widely-referenced study published a decade ago in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, researchers from the Netherlands measured pre- and post-vacation happiness. While they concluded that post-trip happiness generally did not differ between vacationers and non-vacationers, they found vacationers had a significantly higher pre-trip happiness score,” the Philly Voice reports. “They suggested that anticipation played an important role in explaining the observed differences.”

It’s not all that surprising, though. We experience this in our own lives all the time, and it’s been more evident than ever over the last year. Having something – anything – to look forward to – a Zoom call with friends, a package we ordered arriving, our favorite T.V. show waiting for us – holds even more significance when there are nearly no events on our calendar. Research simply confirms what we already know to be true.

And our homeless friends are just like us. They crave the same things, and with the struggle of day-to-day survival, the mental strain of monotony and hopelessness make it all the more difficult. Consider how you could help spread this joy to others in your own life. Maybe you roll down your window, turn up some music and have a spontaneous dance party with a woman outside the gas station. Maybe you show a card trick to a person you pass on the sidewalk. Maybe you give a free ticket to an outdoor concert to someone you see on the street corner every day or invite someone to play a pick-up game of basketball with you. Perhaps your kids might even want to get in on the fun and make some artwork to hand out or sing a song for someone. (While we do these things, we can also buy our homeless friends a meal or give them a blanket, of course!) These moments bring sparks of joy to the lives of others, and it matters more than you know.

Listen to the latest episode of Real Hope featuring CEO of the Nashville Predators, Sean Henry on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or where you listen to your podcasts.