The nightly news on TV, posts on Facebook, and articles in our local newspapers give us plenty to feel down about every day. More people are struggling financially and emotionally. The threat of violence has become a constant shadow. Addictions are up. Help for the addicted is down. The general social safety net seems to be getting more tattered by the day.
It’s understandable to feel helpless in the face of it all. Compassion fatigue, disconnecting emotionally from so much suffering, can set in. Allowing ourselves some level of denial does have its appeal. But buying into a kind of collective resignation or depression doesn’t feel good either. What can we realistically do when the problems are so big and we feel inadequate to solve them?
A powerful answer is found in volunteering. Individually, we may not be able to solve the world’s problems but when each of us does a little, it adds up to a lot. Every community has service organizations that need help they can’t afford to hire. Local non-profit agencies often count on volunteers to survive.
Although volunteering benefits others, it turns out that volunteering is good for us. If you find yourself overwhelmed by all the bad and unable to find the good, do consider lending a hand and a heart to people and places that need your help.
Benefits of Volunteering
- It gets us out into the world: Cocooning in a blanket can be fine and relaxing for awhile but if one day melts into the next, if any time we’re not at work we want to be holed up in our room with the lights off, it can become a low grade (or maybe not-so-low-grade) depression. Volunteering is a great antidote. When we make and keep a commitment to be there for others, we get up and out. Fresh air, a bit of physical work, and sharing in a project with others reduces isolation, one of the chief symptoms of depression.
- It makes us healthier: Studies have shown that volunteering even for a few hours a week can help us have a healthier heart, can alleviate physical pain, and can bolster our immune systems. A 2013 study out of Carnegie Mellon showed that people who volunteered at least 200 hours per week were 40% less likely to develop high blood pressure than the control group who did not do volunteer work. Other studies have found a health benefit from as little as 100 hours of volunteering a year! Researchers at the University of British Columbia’s departments of Education and Psychology discovered that heart health is improved by volunteer work for as little as one hour a week among adolescents. There are even some studies that suggest that volunteering helps us live longer.
- It makes us feel better emotionally: Researchers at the London School of Economics found that people who volunteer are just plain happier. Volunteering helps us get out of ourselves and focus instead on meeting others’ needs and relieving others’ pain. When we do, cortisol, the stress hormone, comes down and oxytocin, the calming hormone, goes up. Helping others can takes our mind off our own worries and puts our concerns into new perspective. The same study at UBC cited above showed that volunteering increased participating teenagers’ empathy for others as well as their altruism.
- It gives life meaning: People who are happiest are those who feel that they are doing things that have meaning. A 2013 article in Positive Psychology News reported that “researchers have found that the act of volunteering is associated with several forms of well-being, including hedonic (happiness, life satisfaction), eudaimonic (meaning and self-actualization), and social (how one views his or her function in society)”. Political psychologists have found that activism gives people a higher sense of meaning and life satisfaction.
- It widens our social circle: One of the most important contributing factors to our resilience, our ability to bounce back from difficulties, is a support group of friends. If you find that your friend census is less than you’d like or if you are so socially anxious that it’s been difficult to make friends, volunteering is for you. When people come together to support a cause or organization that is important to them, the focus is on the tasks, not on each other. This is a great way meet other people without the pressure to be their new best friend. Often enough, good friendships do develop naturally as people work side by side over time.
- It is an antidote to depression and anxiety. When we get totally and enthusiastically involved in any activity that feels personally worthwhile, we can move out of depressive or anxious thoughts and feelings and into happiness, even joy. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named this phenomenon “flow”. Research indicates that people who experience flow on a regular basis have lower levels of depression and anxiety.
Join Up and Feel Better
Millions of Americans spend part of each week doing volunteer work of one kind or another. In fact, almost 26% of people, most between ages 35 – 55, volunteer. By joining in, we can feel better, offer significant support to our community and have a positive impact on our world.