Volunteering is the act of generously offering one's time, effort, or talent without any ulterior motives or expectation for reward or financial gain. This selfless service provides a valuable contribution to various needs, causes, and missions. Although some may engage in volunteer work for personal benefits, the most significant improvements in overall health and wellness are derived from an altruistic, others-oriented approach to volunteering. Those who have dedicated their time to helping others can at test to the undeniable rewards that come with it. In this article, we will explore the positive impact of volunteering on both mental and physical well-being.
Benefits of Volunteering:
1. Improves physical and mental health
Engaging in volunteer work offers valuable opportunities for individuals to maintain both their physical and mental well-being. Regardless of age, it is highly recommended that everyone considers volunteering as a means to enhance their overall health. Specifically, research has demonstrated the significant benefits of volunteering for adults aged 60 and above. [i, ii]
Volunteers often experience a significant improvement in their physical well-being. Engaging in volunteer work has been known to have several physical benefits, including:
Stress reduction: Although there is no direct causation between volunteering and decreased stress, numerous studies have shown that individuals report feeling less stressed on the days they engage in volunteering activities. This improvement can be observed through both self-reports and a decrease in salivary cortisol levels. [iii] Volunteering is also often associated with positive emotions and a sense of relaxation, which can be attributed to the release of dopamine.
More movement: Depending on the nature of the volunteer work, individuals may also increase their physical activity levels, leading to more movement throughout the day.
Decreased blood pressure: Engaging in volunteer work can contribute to lower blood pressure levels and reduced risk of developing hypertension. By alleviating stress and promoting an active lifestyle, volunteering plays a role in improving overall cardiovascular health.
The act of being generous is associated with a higher level of happiness and greater empathetic emotions. Engaging in volunteer work not only has the potential to increase overall life satisfaction, but it can also serve as a protective factor against negative mental health outcomes. [iv] Volunteers experience lower rates of depression and anxiety, particularly among older adults who engage in regular volunteer activities. [v] Older adults who dedicate 100 hours or more per year to volunteering reported a more positive perception of aging. [vi] These findings highlight the significant impact that volunteering can have on mental well-being.
From promoting a healthier lifestyle to protecting against depression, volunteering is a worthwhile pursuit. Engaging in this noble endeavor not only enhances personal health, but also allows individuals to make a positive impact on the lives of others in their community.
2. Gives a sense of purpose
Volunteers frequently derive a profound sense of fulfillment from their efforts, as they serve others in a meaningful way and provide both tangible and intangible benefits to the recipients. Engaging in volunteer work often leads to a heightened sense of purpose and gratitude, which further contributes to the stress-relieving impact of such selfless acts. Committing to a morally honorable cause that uplifts others can serve as a strategy for reestablishing personal goals, discovering meaning after loss or adversity, and alleviating stress. If possible, it is advisable to engage in team-based activities that divert attention away from individual troubles and address the needs or distress of those around us.
3. Nurtures new and existing relationships
In addition to its many other benefits, volunteering enhances social interactions and fosters the creation of a valuable social support network. It allows individuals with similar interests to come together and offers an excellent opportunity to make new friends and strengthen existing relationships. It is not surprising that volunteers experience reduced feelings of loneliness, as volunteering provides a unique social outlet. [vii] Developing a healthy support system is crucial for improving mental health, and joining a volunteer group can offer a special opportunity to expand your network. [viii]
The studies show that individuals who dedicate 100-200 hours per year to volunteering tend to experience protective benefits for their physical and mental well-being. This doesn't mean that you won't see any benefits with fewer hours, but it emphasizes the idea that the more you contribute, the more you are likely to gain in return.
However, it's important to note that the greatest benefits come from volunteering for the right reasons. A study published in HealthPsychology in 2012 found that individuals who volunteered regularly had longer lifespans, but only when their intentions were truly altruistic. [ix] Volunteering should be driven by the desire to help others, rather than the desire to experience personal benefits.
Regardless of your reasons for volunteering – whether it's to expand your social network, enhance your skills, explore potential career paths, stay active after retirement, or simply meet the needs of people in your community – there are numerous rewards awaiting you. It's important to maintain appropriate boundaries for your time, emotions, and energy so as not to become overwhelmed. It’s also important to keep a close watch on your own mental well-being if too much is being asked of you. In conclusion, volunteering offers incredible personal rewards as a byproduct of selflessly giving your time to others.
Ideas for volunteering:
1. Community health education initiatives, such as
2. Local trail or nature conservation
3. Local church
4. Local library or school
5. Local hospital
6. Local animal shelter
My experience with volunteering: As a teenager, I loved volunteering at a pet sanctuary. I always felt such pure joy when socializing helpless, rescued kittens. It was a simple gesture and use of my time, yet I knew the animals had a brighter future because of this volunteer-run organization. As an adult, I discovered that the occasional frustrations with the time commitment involved with careful program planning for the community NDARP melted away during personal conversations with attendees who were learning how to combat their depression and anxiety. I'd go home each evening encouraged that education is a powerful tool that can transform lives! Today, my husband and I share in giving to our local community through healthy, plant-based cooking classes at my husband's PT clinic. The patients report continuing to make the recipes at home, which encourages me that this class is making a difference. Over the years, I’ve learned that volunteering isn’t always easy and the rewards aren’t always immediately evident, but I've discovered a deep personal fulfillment when I give my time to others. I invite you to experience this fulfillment as well! This month, look for a specific way you can give to those around you in an act of volunteering.
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[i] Yeung, J., Zhang, Z., & Kim, T. (2017). Volunteering and health benefits in general adults: cumulative effects and forms. BMC Public Health, 18(1), 8.
[ii] de Wit, A., Qu, H., & Bekkers, R. (2022). The health advantage of volunteering is larger for older and less healthy volunteers in Europe: a mega-analysis. European Journal of Ageing, 19(4),1189–1200.
[iii] Han, S. H., Kim, K., & Burr, J. A. (2018).Stress-buffering effects of volunteering on salivary cortisol: Results from a daily diary study. Social Science & Medicine (1982), 201,120–126.
[iv] Huo, M., & Kim, K. (2022). Volunteering Dynamics and Life Satisfaction: Self-Perceptions of Aging as a Buffer. The journals of gerontology. Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 77(2),321–331.
[v] Jiang, D., Warner, L., Chong, A. et al. (2021). Benefits of volunteering on psychological well-being in older adulthood: evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Aging & Mental Health, 25(4),641–649.
[vi] Huo, M., Miller, L. M. S., Kim, K., et al. (2021).Volunteering, Self-Perceptions of Aging, and Mental Health in Later Life. The Gerontologist, 61(7), 1131–1140.
[vii] Cho, J., & Xiang, X. (2023). The RelationshipBetween Volunteering and the Occurrence of Loneliness Among Older Adults: A Longitudinal Study with 12 Years of Follow-Up. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 66(5), 680–693.
[viii] Harandi, T., Taghinasab, M., & Nayeri, T. (2017).The correlation of social support with mental health: A meta-analysis. Electronic Physician, 9(9), 5212–5222.
[ix] Konrath, S., Fuhrel-Forbis, A., et al. (2012). Motives for volunteering are associated with mortality risk in older adults. HealthPsychology, 31(1), 87–96.