Healthier Body, Happier Mind: The Many Benefits of Volunteer Work

Healthier Body Happier MindIt should come as no surprise that giving of yourself to help others is a good thing, not just for the people who receive your help, but even more so for you. In fact, Stephanie Brown and colleagues found that in terms of the health and happiness benefits, you’re better off being the one extending help than receiving it. That’s pretty cool: You can do a ton of good for yourself when you do good for others.

But, not so fast: Your motive matters. People who volunteer because they truly want to help others enjoy enhanced health and happiness much more than people with self-serving motives for volunteering.

Volunteering and your health

Hooray! I volunteered and now I am metaphorically and indeed literally floating on air!
Hooray! I volunteered and now I am metaphorically and indeed literally floating on air!

So how does volunteering affect health? The exact mechanism isn’t known, although I wonder if it might be the reductions in stress that volunteers report. Regardless of how it happens, the data clearly indicates that volunteers live longer and feel healthier over time. A recent study gets even more specific, showing lower blood pressure among volunteers (the lead author notes that volunteers may get more physical activity through their commitments).

Volunteering and your work

Volunteering can also make you better at your job. Not only might you learn new skills (or practice old ones) as part of your volunteering gig, but volunteering also appears to enhance “functional ability.

Volunteering and your happiness

Perhaps the most obvious benefits to volunteering are improved mental health, reduced stress, and increased happiness. Neural data suggests that helping others simply feels good.

In an interesting twist on the idea that giving to others creates happiness, recent research suggests that people who are happier are more likely to be altruistic–specifically, to donate a kidney.

How to get started

If you’re interested in volunteering, here are some tips to get started:

  • Pick a cause or organization you feel passionate about. It’s a lot easier to put in the time and effort of volunteering if you believe you’re working on an important problem in a meaningful way. For example, almost all of my donations and volunteer work involve either education or healthcare in some way, because I think these are both critical areas where I can help.
  • Look for local organizations that will facilitate volunteer shifts flexibly. In Boston, both One Brick Boston and Boston Cares create opportunities for volunteers to take shifts at a variety of organizations on an as-wanted basis. This is really convenient if you work long hours, travel often, or want an arrangement where you can try different volunteer assignments before committing to one longer-term.
  •  Join a social group with a focus on volunteerism. When I moved back to Boston, I joined our area’s Junior League. Not only did it help me meet friends, but it also introduced me to a volunteer job I really like (reading textbooks for visually impaired readers through Learning Ally) and allow me to play a supporting role in a wide range of local organizations.

If you’re a volunteer, I’d love to hear about where you offer your time and what made you get involved!

2 thoughts on “Healthier Body, Happier Mind: The Many Benefits of Volunteer Work

  1. Since I work outside of Boston now I can’t volunteer as frequently as I like – but years ago I was a project leader with Boston Cares.

    My favorite organizations to volunteer with were Community Servings (provides meals to people fighting critical diseases in MA AND their families – which I thought was particularly caring & thoughtful), Women’s Lunch Place (a shelter & food provider for homeless women), and Boston Living Center (serving lunch to people who are HIV+).

    Great post Amy!

    1. Thanks, Danielle–sorry I didn’t reply to this earlier. Those are great suggestions for places to volunteer. One of my biggest challenges when I moved back to Boston was finding organizations I could help. It’s not as easy as an adult as it is when you’re in college!

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