People holding up colorful letters spelling volunteer

The Powerful Social, Emotional and Health Benefits of Volunteering

Have you heard the phrase, “Sharing is caring?” As it turns out, sharing your time, energy, expertise and wisdom with others through volunteering, is just as good for you as it is for the recipients.

Research backs this up. UnitedHealth Group researchers found significant benefits of volunteering in the majority of the study’s participants:

  • Physical: 76% reported feeling healthier, 80% felt more in control of their health, and 25% said volunteering helped them manage chronic illness and pain by diverting their minds from their own problems
  • Spiritual: 96% said they felt a richer purpose in life, and many feel a greater connection to others
  • Emotional: 94% said their mood improved, as well as their confidence and self-esteem, personal fulfillment and satisfaction with life
  • Mental: 78% reported lower stress, and many report feeling mentally stimulated. Volunteering is also a known career-advancer, as it hones your leadership, management, planning and organizational skills.

So will volunteering save your life? It could.

The University of Exeter Medical School analyzed over 40 research studies on the benefits of volunteering. Their findings showed that people who have volunteered had a 20% lower risk of early death than non-volunteers. Why?

One theory is that volunteering leads to greater happiness. Helping feels good! Helping those others leads to a greater appreciation of what we have, and less anxiety about what we don’t have… and when we feel gratitude, we experience lower blood pressure than people who are constantly moaning about their problems, upset about what is missing in their lives, and worried about the future.

Research shows that happier people are generally healthier overall. Happiness promotes better self-care both physically and emotionally, and better lifestyle choices. Older volunteers who may otherwise lead sedentary lifestyles find themselves walking more and doing more physical tasks than if they didn’t have volunteer opportunities. Even people suffering from chronic pain find that it’s easier to manage when their attention is focused on others.

Happy people are also less affected by everyday stresses and are much less prone to depression and anxiety, even in difficult times. Happiness gives you the chance to bounce back with an optimistic attitude instead of being stuck in stressful negativity. This is important because unmanaged stress is a leading contributor to diseases including heart disease and even cancer.

Nothing is better for managing stress than having a meaningful connection with other people. Your blood pressure will go down, the stress hormones will flush from your body, and afterward, basking the glow of altruism, your body will activate its parasympathetic nervous system – the “rest, digest and repair” functions necessary for optimal health.

The more you volunteer, the more benefits you’ll experience – but before you say, “I’m too busy, I don’t have time…” it’s important to note that most volunteer opportunities don’t take a huge chunk of time. You just give what you can, when you can.

Everybody is busy, and if volunteering meant giving up weekends, nobody would do it. Many volunteer opportunities only ask for a 1-3 hour commitment, and in the grand scheme of things, if you volunteered for 2 hours a week, that’s just over 100 hours per year – or 4 days.

Imagine getting relief from your desk job to walk shelter dogs… or the satisfaction of teaching battered women valuable job-hunting skills… or spending time with forgotten seniors at a nursing home. Or you may choose to share your wisdom and experience with high school kids who are struggling to find their place in life… or warming the stomachs of the homeless by ladling out soup on a blustery winter’s evening… or knitting caps for tiny premature babies. Perhaps you may volunteer to adopt a section of highway for monthly roadside cleanup… or tend to a neighborhood flower bed…(gardening has been proven to be one of the healthiest activities you can engage in!)… or answering phones for a homeless shelter. This is just a tiny, tiny list of what’s possible!

Doesn’t it make your heart feel good, just reading about what you could contribute? It’s true that volunteering is good for the heart… both the emotional heart and the physical heart.

volunteer at a soup kitchen

We can reuse

Volunteering helps you make new contacts, strengthen social ties with people in your community, help people in need (or animals, or the environment), and share common interests with like-minded people. As it turns out, volunteering is especially potent “medicine” for anyone suffering from depression, anxiety, shyness or low self-esteem, anybody who feels they’ve hit rock bottom, or for shut-ins desperate for human connection.

We are hardwired to be helpers. The more we give, the better we feel… and the better we feel, the longer we live.

Find a way to give back, today. The only requirements are an open mind, a positive attitude, a willingness to do whatever is needed, and a couple of hours of your time… in return for an immeasurably richer life experience, increased optimism, and better health!