Surprising Benefits Of Volunteering (And The Science Of Why It Makes You Happier)
Updated 20 February 2020
Most people see volunteering as a good and noble endeavor, but many are reluctant to actually volunteer. Our lives are busy as they are, so why should you spend your time and energy on something that doesn’t pay?
While volunteering may not pay in money, it does have other benefits that you don’t want to miss out on. Besides looking good on your resumé, volunteering can support both your physical and mental health, lower your stress levels and help you find new friends. And you don’t even have to devote your whole life to volunteering to reap those benefits, just a little of your time will do.
In this article, I will take a closer look at the benefits of volunteering and how to make the most of it.
- Why do people volunteer?
- The surprising benefits of volunteering (as per science)
- How to volunteer for maximum happiness
- Closing words
Why do people volunteer?
According to the 2018 Volunteering in America Report, 30.3 percent of adults volunteer through an organization, and many more are thought to volunteer their services to friends and communities informally, which makes the actual number much higher.
According to the UK’s NCVO organization, there are several reasons why people choose to volunteer, including:
- Giving something back to an organization that has impacted a person's life.
- Making a difference to the lives of others.
- Helping the environment.
- Feeling valued and part of a team, and gaining confidence.
- Gaining new or developing existing skills, knowledge and experience.
- Enhancing a CV.
Volunteering is sometimes a part of an educational program. For example, I have graduated from and now teach in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, where one of the core elements is CAS - creativity, activity, service. In the service component, students are expected to volunteer their services to an organization or individual in a way that has a learning benefit for the student.
Example of why I volunteer
So, as a part of my high school education, I volunteered at the local library, where I held Saturday reading hours to children and helped organize the books. Although I only started volunteering because I had to (that’s a bit ironic, isn’t it?), it gave me valuable experience and helped me build lasting relationships and find my place in the world.
I am now watching my students go through the same process and devote their time to animal shelters and tutoring others. The most rewarding part is seeing them discover new activities and thrive spending time on worthwhile causes.
My volunteering journey didn’t stop after graduation. In university, I was a member of several student organizations and spent my free time organizing events and writing articles for the student journal. Nowadays, I’m a volunteer internet counselor.
What does volunteering give me? First and foremost, valuable professional skills and experience, but also a sense of belonging and an ability to help others. There are times when it gets busy at work and I think about quitting volunteering, but at the end of the day, the benefits outweigh the costs for me.
The surprising benefits of volunteering (as per science)
You don’t only have to take my word for it - the benefits of volunteering have been scientifically proven, too.
A 2007 study found that people who volunteer consistently report to be healthier both physically and mentally than those who do not. Another important finding of this study was that those who were less well socially integrated benefited the most, meaning that volunteering may be a way to empower groups who are socially excluded otherwise.
Similar results were found in 2018 - volunteering seems to have beneficial effects on mental and physical health, life satisfaction, social well-being and depression. There is a ‘but’, though - the benefits are greater if the volunteering is other-oriented.
Other-oriented volunteering is offering your services simply because you want to help and give to your community. Self-oriented volunteering is directed at improving your skills and polishing your resumé. So paradoxically, you reap greater benefits if you’re not volunteering for the benefits.
This finding is supported by a study from 2013, which found that volunteering can buffer the effects of stress on health, but these stress-buffering effects are limited to individuals with positive views of other people.
Volunteering also allows you to spread happiness by working closely with other people and giving back to your community. And it can make you happier, too! According to researcher Francesca Borgonovi, volunteering can contribute to an individual’s happiness levels in 3 ways:
- Increasing empathic emotions.
- Shifting aspirations.
- Making us compare ourselves to people who are relatively worse-off.
While the last point - social comparison - may not be the best way to boost your happiness level, it is also one that you cannot ignore. By helping the less fortunate, you are forced to evaluate your own life and makes you count your blessings.
Science on volunteering for the elderly
There is one social group who is notoriously lonely and who might benefit from volunteering - the elderly. In 2012, the then First Lady of Estonia, Evelin Ilves, proposed that instead of raising pensions, we should find ways to offer volunteering opportunities to the elderly. This plan was met with ridicule, but the idea itself isn’t bad.
For example, a 2010 study found that volunteering has a positive effect on depression in people over 65. A 2016 study from Finland found that older adults who engaged in voluntary work were happier than those who did not.
So why not invite your grandma along the next time you’re going to walk the dogs at the animal shelter?
How to volunteer for maximum happiness
Now you know the benefits of volunteering, but perhaps you’re unsure where to start. Here are a couple of tips on how to make your volunteering experience beneficial for everyone.
1. Consider your skills and interests
There is little point in devoting your time to something you aren’t passionate about because you’re more likely to quit that way. Before you sign up as a volunteer anywhere, take a moment to figure out what’s important to you and where you can put your skills to good use.
Are you a wizard in Excel and love teaching? Volunteer to tutor someone less mathematically-inclined. Perhaps you have a wonderful intonation and would like to offer some company, so why not offer reading services at a retirement home.
2, Don’t burn out
If you’re passionate about a lot of things, it’s easy to overbook your schedule. However, you’re no use to anyone - least of all yourself! - if you burn out in a month. Make sure you keep your volunteering projects at a reasonable level that allows you some rest, too.
Before you commit to a highly stressful activity like crisis relief or volunteer firefighting, make sure that you’re in a place where you can handle the extra stress.
3. Bring your friend along (or your grandma)
Volunteering for the first time can be scary, so bring someone along. Not only will the experience be less scary, but it can also be a wonderful bonding activity for you, as you can share a cause close to you.
Plus, according to the science we discussed, getting your grandparents to volunteer will probably benefit them more than you, and one of the secrets to a happy life is definitely a happy grandma.
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Volunteering has many other, and arguably more important, benefits than just looking good on your resumé. It can improve your physical and mental health, lower your stress levels and just plainly boost your happiness. Plus, there’s usually a cool t-shirt in it for you (just kidding). Even without the t-shirt, what are you waiting for? It’s time to take voluntary action!
Do you want to share your own experience with volunteering? Or do you have a funny story on how volunteering made you happier? I'd love to hear in the comments below!
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