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What’s In It For Me? 5 Life-Changing Benefits of Volunteering

Written by Gabrielle Wathen on November 6, 2018 at 8:20 AM

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“I would love to volunteer…but I just don’t have the time!” Sound familiar?

Life is busy, no doubt. But isn’t it funny how you can hear someone say this, and then in the very next breath they’ll ask you if you’re caught up on the 10-hour Netflix series they just binge-watched? (Okay, I’m guilty too.) In a perfect world, we would all have the time and energy to volunteer our help to the causes in our community that we care most about (be it animal care, homelessness, continuing education, you name it).

So why is it that many people don’t prioritize volunteerism? Perhaps carving out that time would be more enticing if we knew there was something in it for us…well, there is.

Interested in living a longer, happier, more fulfilling life? Read on and consider volunteering!

Volunteering Can Boost Emotional Stability & Make You Happier

In a rut? Experiencing depression? Loneliness? You aren’t alone, especially now that we’ve officially set our clocks back one hour and the darker days are upon us. Daylight Saving Time has been linked to increased rates of depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), making this an even greater time of the year to consider the mental benefits of volunteering.

Now I know when you feel bogged down with the weight of life, the thought of helping yourself, much less helping others, can feel hugely challenging.

Enter perspective. What if helping others is actually your ticket to helping yourself? It might be. Volunteering has immense benefits on your psychological well being. Volunteering has been proven to:  

  • Improve self-esteem and confidence, especially in teens or young adults
  • Decrease loneliness and social isolation rates in older adults
  • Improve mood and counteract the effects of stress, anger, and anxiety (this is especially true if you volunteer to care for animals, specifically dogs)
  • Foster a sense of connection that leads to increased sense of purpose, combatting depression and leading to increased happiness and life satisfaction

Volunteering Can Lower Blood Pressure & Heart Disease Risk

If the emotional benefits of volunteer work haven’t hooked you, consider the impact it can have on your overall physical health. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women worldwide, and high blood pressure can cause it or lead to a heart attack.

According to a Carnegie Mellon University study published in Psychology and Aging:

  • Adults over age 50 who volunteered at least 200 hours in a 12-month period were less likely to develop high blood pressure (hypertension) than non-volunteers

According to this study by Social Science & Medicine, volunteers are also more likely to use preventative health care services, revealing that:

  • People who volunteered were 47% more likely to get cholesterol checks and 30% more likely to get flu shots than those who didn’t volunteer

Remember when I mentioned that volunteering leads to an increased sense of purpose? Well, that plays a role here, too. According to Harvard Health Publishing:

  • “A 2016 report in Psychosomatic Medicine that pooled findings from 10 different studies found that people with a high sense of purpose in life had a lower risk of having a cardiovascular event (such as a heart attack or stroke) and of dying from any cause, compared with people who had a lower sense of purpose.”

Volunteering Can Reduce Dementia Risk in Seniors

This is huge. According to the World Health Organization, “Worldwide, around 50 million people have dementia, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia and may contribute to 60–70% of cases.”

A study led by University of Calgary psychology professor Yannick Griep, and published in the medical journal PLOS One, revealed that volunteer work, defined as “an activity done out of free will for no monetary compensation,” can reduce dementia risk in seniors. Griep notes that “the activity has to benefit others who are not your core family; for example, helping out a church, a school, a library, a homeless shelter or some sort of charity organization.” The results?

  • "We found that the people who did volunteer work for at least one hour a week on a regular basis were 2.44 times less likely to develop dementia than the seniors who didn't volunteer," says Griep.

Volunteering Builds Community & Can Advance Your Career

Whether you’re volunteering your time as a mentor in a field in which you excel, serving an association you belong to, or offering a helping hand in an area of need in your community that is otherwise foreign to you, you have the opportunity to build your skillset and learn and grow as a person. Thus, strengthening your overall community.

Learn about The Power of Mentoring in Communities

This is especially true in areas with high poverty rates, as connecting with people outside of your own socioeconomic background is rewarding and can help you see the world from different perspectives. Let’s say you have never worked in a restaurant before, but you choose to volunteer at a busy soup kitchen serving hot meals to the homeless.

Not only are you making a direct positive impact on someone’s life and well being, but you are:

  • Building social skills and developing awareness
  • Gaining new experience in a different industry
  • Expanding your skillset (fast-paced environment, teamwork, time management)
  • Growing your network by socializing with new people and forging deeper connections
  • Strengthening community
  • Enhancing your resume

I won’t lie, when I was younger the term “community service” always seemed to have a negative connotation to it – I needed X amount of community service hours to graduate high school, or I needed X amount of community service hours to rectify running that stop sign at 16-years-old. I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons – I was doing it because I had to.

As an adult, it’s clearer than ever that it’s a beautiful thing to be of service to your community or association (and you tend to get a lot more out of it than you give). After all, what is a community without its people? Without a shared effort and responsibility? This brings me to my final point...

Volunteers Can Live Longer, If They Do It for the Right Reasons

If you’re interested in volunteering for the sole purpose of reaping the many personal benefits I’ve mentioned here, your motive might deprive you of the most incredible benefit – living longer.

LiveScience reported on the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which has followed a random sample of 10,317 Wisconsin residents from their high school graduation in 1957, specifically stating that:  

  • In 2004, the participants reported how often they had volunteered within the past 10 years. They also explained their reasons for volunteering, or, in the cases of those who had not volunteered but were planning to, the reasons they would.
    • Some of the participants' motives were more oriented toward others, such as "I feel it is important to help others" or "Volunteering is an important activity to the people I know best."
      • Other respondents, however, had more self-oriented reasons for volunteering, such as "Volunteering is a good escape from my own troubles," or "Volunteering makes me feel better about myself."
  • The findings showed that those who volunteered for more altruistic reasons had lower mortality rates as of 2008 than people who did not volunteer.
    • Of the 2,384 non-volunteers, 4.3 percent were deceased four years later, compared with 1.6 percent of altruistic volunteers who had died.

So there you have it, you can lower your mortality rate by volunteering, but only if your intentions are truly altruistic (i.e., you want to help others, not just make yourself feel better). Why not try it? After all, just think of all the Netflix shows you can binge during your extended lifespan!

Where to Look for Volunteer Opportunities This Season

If you are a member of an association, exploring the volunteer opportunities they have available is a great place to start. If you’re interested in branching out and helping your local community, consider exploring these options:

Make the choice, to make the time, to make a difference. Happy volunteering!

Use your community to increase volunteerism and member engagement.

Topics: Volunteer Management, Associations, Nonprofits and Charities, Online Community

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