The Health Benefits of Volunteering

If you are like most people, you probably recognize that helping others makes you feel better about yourself, but you feel like your life is busy enough without volunteering. It can be difficult to make time for your local charity or community organization, but once you start, you may be surprised at how good it makes you feel.

Furthermore, there are some important health and personal benefits to volunteering that may make up for the time you lose. There are numerous benefits like enhanced mental health and lower blood pressure, but the most important is that volunteering correlates with living longer.

The Definition of Volunteering

At its simplest, volunteering is donating time and labor to serve your community. The most common volunteering activities include working for a charity, a religious group, or a community organization. Volunteers may serve in a variety of roles ranging from unskilled labor to highly specialized professionals.

Schedules are a key component of volunteering. Volunteers may offer their services on a regular basis such as weekly or monthly, or they may volunteer as requested by their organization. For example, many volunteers mobilize after a natural disaster.

In recent years, a new form of volunteering has entered the mainstream—virtual volunteering. Instead of appearing in person at a volunteer site, volunteers perform duties online. This may involve duties like mentoring, tutoring or counseling; these tasks may be in support of the organization’s primary function or may serve as an online version of that function.

Why Volunteering Is So Beneficial

Of course, volunteering benefits the community and individual beneficiaries who receive that service, but many people fail to realize that the volunteers are also rewarded emotionally and health-wise. The positive satisfaction derived from volunteering does much more than buoy the emotions of the volunteer—there is considerable evidence that it improves their overall wellbeing.

  • Helps you stay active—for many people, volunteering is a valuable opportunity to remain physically and mentally active. Studies have found that people who volunteer are in better health physically than those who don’t. For people over 60 years of age, volunteering helps sharpen and retain cognitive function.
  • Prevents depression—there is considerable evidence that volunteering lowers the risk of depression, especially among those aged 65 or older. Volunteering provides a social support network that offers relationships with like-minded people which is crucial for preventing depression.
  • Live longer—some studies link volunteering with a longer, healthier life. The Longitudinal Study of Aging revealed that volunteers had lower mortality rates than those who did not volunteer. Furthermore, volunteering appears to mitigate pain intensity among the chronically or seriously ill.
  • Reduces stress—the enjoyment and pleasure you feel after volunteering is related to the release of dopamine in the brain. The elevated levels of dopamine help reduce stress which can lower the risk of or slow the progression of conditions like heart disease, anxiety, and high blood pressure.

One seminal poll by United Health Group revealed some startling benefits of volunteering.

  • More than 75 percent of people who volunteered in the past 12 months said they felt healthier.
  • A quarter of people who have volunteered in the past 12 months stated that volunteering had helped them manage a chronic illness.
  • Almost 95 percent of people who had volunteered within the past 12 months said that volunteering had improved their mood.
  • Seventy-eight percent of people who had volunteered within the past 12 months said that their stress levels had declined due to volunteering.

How to Get Started Volunteering

It can be difficult to start volunteering, especially if you haven’t volunteered before or it has been a while. There are many, many opportunities to volunteer, so you may be overwhelmed by your options.

You probably want to begin with a cause that you are passionate about, such as saving the environment, caring for the elderly, or finding homes for pets. Once you settle on an issue, then you should try to find out if there are any organizations locally that serve your cause.  That is, if you want to volunteer in person; if you would rather help out online or over the phone, your organization may not need to be located nearby.

After you choose a group to volunteer for, then you need to determine what role you want to serve in. it may be enough to just show up and do whatever odd jobs they have available, but it may be possible to serve in more specialized roles, depending on your personal skill set.

Your personal skills and experience may play a key role in your volunteering opportunities. If you would like to serve in a selective organization like the Olympics or Peace Corps, you must apply and successfully complete the selection process. This process may include obtaining recommendations from people you have previously worked with or interviewing with key figures in the prospective organization.

It may be necessary to attend a training class prior to volunteering, regardless of your prior experience. These classes may be general introductions to the organization you will be serving, or they could be rigorous courses that teach you new skills you will need in your specific role as a volunteer.

Is Volunteering Worth the Sacrifices?

This is a question that can only be answered by the volunteer. For many people, working hard and sacrificing time and energy are more than fairly compensated by the joy of helping people who are in need.  Others, however, will feel that they don’t have the time or resources to volunteer and they should devote themselves to other endeavors.

Regardless of how you think you will feel about volunteering initially, you should at least give it a chance. You could come to realize that you enjoy it much more than you would have thought.

Finally, you should understand that each volunteering opportunity is different. You may find that although you didn’t enjoy volunteering in a certain setting, another kind of volunteering is much more appealing. Just a different group of people or a different kind of volunteer role may be enough to convince you that volunteering is worthwhile.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA, and you should not post any of your private health information.