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Seven Ways Volunteering Grows Your Mental and Emotional Well-Being
Today's guest post is written by Krisca Te, who works with Open Colleges, the leading provider of TAFE courses equivalent and counselling training in Australia. When not working, she enjoys spending her day with her 4-month old son.
I have a friend who recently asked me why I volunteer my time at a local charity. “If I were you,” he said, “I would have spent my time on the beach. Or take on a second job. In this economy, nobody can afford to volunteer.”
He has a point.
Why volunteer when you can make more money to pay down your mortgage? Isn’t your responsibility first to your family? Why volunteer when you’re already under insurmountable stress at work? You don’t want to eventually be a burden to society, do you?
But what my friend and people like him assume is that volunteering gives you nothing in return but that warm feeling you get when helping people. Yes, giving back makes you feel good, but it does more than that.
In fact, I’d argue that volunteering benefits the volunteer more than the recipient. And I don’t mean that in a fluffy “feel-good” way. I have hard science behind each claim.
Here’s the first one.
1. Volunteering Builds Closer Bonds
The quality of the relationships we have with the people closest to us is a widely studied variable among the scientific circles. What they found is unanimous: the better the relationships, and the more of it you have, the longer and happier you’ll live.
But in today’s busy world, most people simply have no time for long conversations and catching up with old friends. And as time races ahead, this becomes a habit – pretty soon you find yourself unable to do anything together, even if you want to.
Think about the typical father-son relationship. They seem to live separate lives despite the fact that they share a roof.
One of the best ways to rebuild that relationship is by volunteering together. Volunteering gives you a common goal to work towards, opportunity to spend time together, and of course, engage each other.
And it works with families, friends, neighbors and even professional relationships.
2. Volunteering Expands Your Social Life
But what if you want to make more friends? Are you worried volunteering will kill your social life?
This is, of course, is not true. If anything, volunteering presents an opportunity to make friends with people from all walks of life, not just from your cozy little comfort zone. And instead of drowning yourself with beer, you’re making a difference in the process.
So why is it important to make friends with diverse background? Because these people show you a new perspective to view your problems. Some of them may even connect to you valuable new contacts that can boost your career.
3. You Matter
One of human being’s greatest desires is to be wanted. According to game researcher Jane McGonigal, it’s why games are so addictive. Because when you play games, the mechanics have been designed so that you are always needed by your “clan.”
Compare that to reality, where most people don’t feel valued, in the office and worse, at home.
But you don’t have to waste your time playing games to fulfil this human desire. Volunteers are also always needed. In fact, they are a crucial part of all nonprofit campaigns.
And if you ever feel like you don’t matter, try giving fresh water to thirsty Africans and you’ll see just how badly the world needs you.
4. Novel Experiences
Not everyone has a chance to work on a project to bring fresh water to people who can’t access it. Nor is teaching underprivileged kids a part of the public’s life.
In fact, some jobs are so unique they can only be experienced through volunteering.
For example, you’ll have to dedicate a better part of your life training to be a paid UN peacekeeper. Or you can volunteer to be a civilian officer. Another example: you can run for public office to eradicate homelessness, or you can volunteer to work directly with the people most in need.
The bottom line is, if you’re bored with the ins and outs of your life, volunteering is a great way to shake things up without paying for it.
5. Initiates Re-examination of Your Life
What novel experiences do is initiate the re-examination of your life. I’m sure you have had one of these happen to you.
Sometimes you are so deep in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, you don’t even realize you are living a life untrue to yourself. It usually takes a novel experience, like when your first child is born, or a near death experience, to wake you up from the “zombie state.”
But you don’t need to wait for a bus to hit you to achieve that. A month of volunteering in a community suffering from the HIV epidemic will do the same. Trust me when I say you will begin to change things when you come back.
6. Improves Your Health
- There is no association between receiving social support and improved health. It’s the ones who gave social support who have lower rates of mortality, even after they controlled for socioeconomic status, education, marital status, age, gender and ethnicity.
- Adults age 65 and older experience positive effects on physical and mental health, “at a great rate.” As you get older, volunteering becomes even more crucial. Those who volunteered at least 100 hours per year were “two-thirds as likely as non-volunteers to report bad health, and also one-third as likely to die.”
- Some of the mental health benefits include lower levels of depression and despair. This is true even if they have had a heart attack. Another study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, found that older adults who feel a sense of purpose have protection against dementia.
- Among individuals who are suffering from chronic pain, volunteering decreases their pain intensity and levels of disability.
7. It Gives You Purpose
Last but not least, studies have shown that volunteering gives you a sense of purpose in life. You might have noticed the health benefits of having a purpose in life in point three above, but it’s more than that.
According to revered psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a purpose is essential to a happy life. A purpose gives you a reason to get out of bed, go to work, contribute to society and enjoy your fruits.
If you don’t believe that you need a purpose in life, look no further than certain groups of the rich, people who have everything they want but are never happy. Despite possessing all that man has to offer, they pop pills to sleep and drink to survive.
- I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
- I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
I can’t help but notice that volunteering helps us fulfil all of them.