There’s no question that volunteering helps those in need, strengthens worthwhile causes, and betters communities.
But what about benefits to the volunteers themselves? You’ve probably heard from more than one source that volunteering has health benefits; let’s explore exactly how giving back can help both your body and your mind.
The simple act of helping others can affect the body in a myriad of positive ways. Volunteering helps you stay physically and mentally active, and this effect is even more obvious among older people, who report better physical health than those who do not volunteer.
The reduction in stress that can result from helping others can reduce the risk of disease—a lower likelihood of developing high blood pressure, for example. Even chronic pain sufferers report improvement in their pain levels when they begin to volunteer. In fact, those who give back have been found to live longer.
One of the most studied effects of volunteerism is its ability to lower depression levels. Not only does keeping the mind busy by helping others help to distract from depressive thoughts, but building a support system based on common interests and positive activities adds to the boost in mood.
A sense of purpose and belonging has been proven to raise self-esteem and increase happiness levels. The opportunity to meet people and make new friends helps those who have been suffering from loneliness get the social contact they need. Isolation has many negative effects on both mental and physical health, so making the effort to spend time with other people improves our lives in concrete ways, especially if we’re doing good while hanging out together.
How to Begin
Decide what organization or cause you would like to support and do a bit of research to make sure you’ll be working on something credible. You then need to determine not only what things you can do to help—walk dogs and clean cages at a rescue organization, provide pro-bono legal advice, work at a soup kitchen—but how much time you are willing and able to dedicate.
It’s imperative that you are honest and realistic about your abilities and availability. If you over-commit yourself or agree to do work you can’t stand, you’ll miss out on all the benefits and won’t stick to volunteering for long.
Now get out there, help some people, and help yourself.
In the next month, choose a volunteer activity and try it at least twice. Note how you feel afterwards.