12 Unexpected Health Benefits of Volunteering

Health Benefits of Volunteering

During the busyness of the holiday season, it can be easy to get wrapped up in your own life. Decorating, attending parties, shopping for gifts, baking cookies—and that’s on top of your already-full work schedule while also trying to sneak in some me-time (fitting in your workouts and healthy meal prep). You don’t have time to “volunteer,” right? Maybe you can resolve to do that in the New Year?

Hold up. You may want to rethink that as the health benefits of volunteering impact you and others. And this is the season of giving…

I’m sure you aren’t surprised to hear that volunteers really make a huge difference for the people they help. And honestly, that is a good enough reason to volunteer. But there are surprising and unexpected health benefits of volunteering for you too!

Here are a few reasons to fit volunteering into your busy schedule (especially as you get older):

12 Health Benefits of Volunteering

#1: The Helper’s High. One of the most recognizable health benefits of volunteering is the positive feelings it imparts. According to psychologists, the Helper’s High is the “state of euphoria” that folks who engage in charitable activities experience. Giving to others helps produce endorphins, which can lead to pleasurable feelings—and even a mild “high.” And who doesn’t want to feel better, happier, and even euphoric?!

#2: Increased Trust in Others. Let’s be honest: many things in the world today can feel confusing, divisive, and isolating. Helping others helps people realize that, no matter what the 24-hour news cycle says, we are all in this together. That is, we’re all humans trying to figure out how to best live on this rock together, and there’s a lot more bringing us together than tearing us apart. Believe it or not, most people are good. Volunteering not only builds stronger social bonds and makes you happier, it also builds empathy and love for others.

#3: Increased Social Interaction. We’ve said it before, and I’m sure we’ll say it again, but humans are social animals, and we cannot thrive without social connections. (We can barely survive—and certainly not happily.) That increased trust in others mentioned above can go a long way to solidify connections in our search for the good in each other. A great way to develop new friendships or deepen the ties that already exist is by sharing activities. And volunteering is a fantastic way to build social skills, expand your network, and meet new people with shared interests.

#4: Decreased Risk of Depression. Research has shown that increased social interaction can help lower rates of depression—especially as we age. It helps you build a support system around common interests. While the emphasis may be on helping others now, if you need help further down the road, you’ll likely have some strong connections to lean on.

#5: Increased Sense of Purpose. “Why am I here?” While that thought may be at the back of your mind from time to time, those thoughts can seem all encompassing after loss (of a loved one, job, pet, or dream) or change in life situation. Volunteering can help you find new meaning and direction. Volunteering has also been shown to help decrease the risk for isolation, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental illnesses. Give your life new meaning and purpose by helping others, and you may be better able to heal yourself—body and mind.

#6: Learn New Skills. Broaden your horizons by exploring your interests and building skills, which may even lead to references and connections if you’re looking to make a career change. Plus, volunteering in a new industry can give you the knowledge and skills you need to potentially switch fields. For example, research from Stanford University has found that volunteering is beneficial for building leadership talent, and it may even help launch some people into the executive suite.

#7: Increased Time. If you want more of something, the best way to get it is to give it away. It may sound impossible, but those who give their time away by volunteering tend to feel like they have more time, similar to those who give more freely to charity often feel wealthier. Volunteering can make you feel more “time affluent” rather than time-constrained.

#8: Increased Mental and Physical Activity. Volunteering is one way to get your body and your mind moving, which explains one reason it provides both physical and mental health benefits. It’s also part of the reason why volunteers, in general, report being in better physical health than those who don’t give of themselves.

#9: Lowered Stress Levels. By increasing connections and getting your mind off yourself and toward others, you can better buffer stress. Volunteering helps your sense of meaning, purpose, and appreciation, which can all help lower stress. Plus, when you help others, the body releases more of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain.

#10: Increased Satisfaction with Life. Especially in mature folks, those who participate in community service find greater life satisfaction than those who instead stay at their paying jobs. Volunteers also report higher levels of happiness, greater self-esteem, and a better sense of control over life.

#11: Increased Resilience. Not only can volunteering lead to improved functional capacity, it can help strengthen resilience if health problems occur. In addition, volunteering is a sweet way to expand your social network and increase the resources available in case you need assistance.

#12: Longer Life. The Longitudinal Study of Aging reported that volunteers have lower mortality rates (meaning they were less likely to die during a specified time period) than those who don’t—no matter their age, gender, socioeconomic status, education, ethnicity, or physical health. Even those who are dealing with a chronic or serious illness can enjoy less pain and depression when serving as peer volunteers for others going through the same type of experience.

Another study found that folks (ages 55 – 85+) who volunteered were 44% less likely to die in the following 5-year period, even after adjusting for age, health habits, and social support. Volunteering was even more likely to lower the risk of dying than religious involvement or high perceived social support.

Volunteering doesn’t just make your heart feel warmer, it also helps it stay stronger. Volunteers experience lower blood pressure and a lower frequency of heart disease. What’s more, volunteers are at a lower risk for memory loss and dementia, including Alzheimer’s, and enjoy increased brain functioning.

Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Wrap-Up

The people who invest 40 to 100 hours per year (which is equivalent to around 1 to 2 hours a week) in volunteering appear to gain the most when it comes to the health benefits of volunteering. But even just helping on occasion brings about more joy, connection, and healing. However, it’s important to volunteer for the right reasons. That is, many of the health benefits of volunteering are exclusive to those who are truly altruistic and want to do good for others—rather than just helping themselves feel better. As Aristotle said, the essence of life is “to serve others and do good.”

Not sure where to start on your volunteering journey? Check out Reward Volunteers, Volunteer Match, Catchafire, Moving Worlds, NationalService.gov or search your city’s website to see what type of volunteer opportunities are available in your area. You can also reach out to your favorite organization or create a post on social media to let your connections know your intentions.

As so eloquently said by Helen Keller, “The unselfish effort to bring cheer to others will be the beginning of a happier life for ourselves.” Wise words indeed.