eaningful work doesn’t have to come with a paycheck. Volunteering allows you to help those who need it most. It can improve lives in immediate and long-term ways. For many, making a difference is itself a form of compensation.Helping others helps you, too. It can help you make friends and learn new skills. It can advance your career, and make you feel happier and healthier. It can even improve your mental and physical health.
There are many ways to offer your skills without a major time commitment. Volunteering even a few hours every so often is good for your health. It can combat depression and give you a sense of purpose, according to Help Guide, a nonprofit resource for mental health and well-being.
Helping others has many benefits for the volunteer, including:
- Making new friends and contacts;
- Improved social skills and self-confidence;
- Sense of purpose;
- Improved happiness;
- Improved physical health; and
- Relief of stress and anxiety.
“Volunteering reduces stress and increases positive, relaxed feelings by releasing dopamine,” according to the Mayo Clinic, referring to the chemical release by the brain’s reward center. People who give their time to others report feeling a sense of meaning and appreciation, both given and received, which can have a stress-reducing effect.
Our biology rewards us with feel-good emotions when we help others. This is, in part, to ensure the survival of our species. It also promotes the safety and well-being of those we love, says behavioral geneticist Sheila Ohlsson Walker.
Walker calls it a biosocial story. “Service to others is a core element in human flourishing,” she says. When we serve, our body’s responses can boost our health, wellness, and quality of life.
There’s an abundance of scientific proof supporting the benefits of volunteering.
Volunteering can boost our outlook. A study of 70,000 UK residents published in the Journal of Happiness Studies showed that, compared to people who didn’t volunteer, “People who had volunteered in the past year were more satisfied with their lives and rated their overall health as better,” according to an excerpt in Greater Good Magazine.
But maybe people who volunteer are happier to begin with? Perhaps positive people are more inclined to serve, but there is growing evidence that helping others can also cause us to feel happier. According to the study, “People who start out with lower levels of well-being may even get a bigger boost from volunteering.”
People who volunteered more often experienced greater benefits. Those who gave their time at least once a month reported better mental health than those who seldom or never volunteered.
How do we find a place to start? Getting involved in health-boosting volunteer events isn’t always easy. The pandemic has made forming group activities more difficult. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you’re new, you might check out opportunities at your local United Way, Great Nonprofits, or Volunteer Match.
Volunteer Match is a nonprofit that pairs volunteers with opportunities virtually or within a geographic area. When the world isolated during the pandemic, the group reported an uptick in virtual volunteerism. According to their website, “Virtual volunteering allowed those sheltering-in-place, or in a high-risk group, to continue to serve their communities.” Although many people are recruited to volunteer because a friend invites them, more people are finding opportunities through platforms like these. Chances are good that the organization will be ready to welcome you as a new volunteer.
Whether via computer or in-person, volunteer opportunities are all around you. To make sure your skills are well matched to the task, be sure to ask questions. Find out what is expected of you. Inquire whether training will be involved, and who you’ll be working with. It’s okay to start small and build up. That way you’ll get a sense if the program is a good fit for you.
It could be that the reason we say, “It is better to give than receive,” is because giving allows you to receive as well.