With most of us leading super busy lives, the idea of volunteering – giving your time and energy to a cause without financial reward – may seem an impossible task. I mean, how can we fit anything else into our already jam-packed schedules? However, volunteering is important for many reasons and doesn't have to take up too much time. And, in fact, the benefits of volunteering are vast for the volunteer – not just the community, individual or organization receiving their assistance.
Indeed, it's these benefits that could partly explain the rise in popularity of volunteering over the past few years. During 2012-13, 29 per cent of adults in England, UK, said they had formally volunteered at least once a month. The figure in the United States is not far off, at around 25 per cent (with slightly more women volunteering than men).
Promisingly, an increasing number of these people are young adults. In the UK, figures show that 2.9 million people in the 16 to 25-year-old age group volunteered during 2015, compared to 1.8 million in 2010: that’s a whopping 50 per cent increase.
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So, why the interest in volunteering? The Greek philosopher Aristotle once said that the essence of life is “to serve others and do good,” and it seems an increasing number of us are starting to wake up and see why volunteering is important. People are starting to understand how serving and helping each other and different communities benefits not just others but ourselves, too.
Volunteering is important as it offers essential help to worthwhile causes, people in need, and the wider community. Indeed, many organziations and charities rely on the generosity of volunteers as often they’re only part-funded through government or local councils, and cannot afford to pay salaries for all their staff. In fact, many companies depend almost solely upon teams of volunteers to help them thrive and do their work.
Of course, the benefits of volunteering for those receiving help are clear. Whether it’s providing kids in a Third World country with free English classes or litter picking from your local beach, the benefits to the receiver and the wider community are usually part of the reason why you decide to volunteer in the first place.
But did you realise just how important volunteering could be for the person doing it? In fact, volunteering is beneficial to the doer for a whole host or reasons, including stress reduction, combating depression and providing a sense of purpose.
“Volunteering is important as it offers essential help to worthwhile causes, people in need, and the wider community.”
And while studies do show that the more you volunteer, the more benefits you’ll experience, volunteering doesn’t have to involve a long-term commitment. Even giving in simple ways can help those in need and improve your overall health and happiness. So, let’s take a closer look at just why volunteering is important with seven key benefits of this altruistic act.
If you’re feeling lonely, isolated, or simply want to widen your social circle, volunteering in your local community is an important – and often fun – way to meet new people. In fact, one of the best ways to make new friends and strengthen existing relationships is to commit to a shared activity together, and volunteering lets you do just that.
Volunteering is an important connection tool. © Professional/Shutterstock
If you’ve recently moved to a new city or country, volunteering is an important and easy way to meet new people and it also strengthens your ties to that local community and broadens your support network. Furthermore, it connects you to people who have common interests and passions and who could go on to become great friends.
In fact, volunteering is an important and interesting way to meet people who you might not normally connect with: people from different age groups, ethnicities or social groups. Because volunteering is open to everyone, it allows you to meet a wide variety of people from all sorts of walks of life, something that can only open your eyes further.
Doing good for others and the community helps to create a natural sense of accomplishment. And working as a volunteer can also give you a sense of pride and identity, helping to boost your self-confidence further by taking you out of your natural comfort zone and environment.
Indeed, volunteering helps you to feel better about yourself, which you can then take back to your ‘regular’ routine, hopefully creating a more positive view of your own life and future goals.
If you’re shy or fearful of new experiences, cultures and travel, volunteering overseas could be an important and insightful way to help you build self-confidence in this area too (not forgetting the other benefit of this type of volunteering – a chance to see a bit of the world at the same time!).
Research shows that volunteering could be particularly useful and important in boosting the self-esteem and confidence of adolescents who are just starting out on their life journey. A 2017 study from the University of Missouri and Brigham Young University that included almost 700 11- to 14-year-olds examined how sharing, helping and comforting others affected self-confidence. The study found that altruistic behaviors may indeed raise teens' feelings of self-worth and that adolescents who assisted strangers reported higher self-esteem one year later.
“If you’re feeling lonely or simply want to widen your social circle, volunteering in your local community is an important – and fun – way to meet new people.”
And a National Youth Agency report seemed to corroborate this evidence. In it, young people aged 11 to 25 “repeatedly stressed that volunteering had increased their self-confidence, self-esteem and self-belief.” This self-confidence boost was shown to be strongly linked to improved communication skills, especially amongst young volunteers who were previously nervous about meeting new people.
Interestingly, volunteering has distinct health benefits that can boost your mental and – perhaps more surprisingly – physical health. Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that people who give their time to others might benefit from lower blood pressure and a longer lifespan.
A 1999 study showed that ‘high volunteers’ (helping out at two or more organizations) had a 63 per cent lower mortality rate than non-volunteers. And more recent research (2013) from Carnegie Mellon University found that adults over 50 who volunteered regularly were less likely to develop high blood pressure (hypertension) compare to non-volunteers. Hypertension is an important indicator of health as it contributes to stroke, heart disease and premature death.
Volunteering has many important health benefits © Dragon Images/Shutterstock
Lead study author Rodlescia Sneed said that carrying out volunteer work could increase physical activity among those who aren’t normally very active, and that it could also reduce stress: “Many people find volunteer work to be helpful with respect to stress reduction, and we know that stress is very strongly linked to health outcomes.”
Importantly, volunteers seem to notice these health benefits too. Indeed, a 2013 study from UnitedHealth Group and the Optum Institute of over 3,300 U.S. adults revealed that 76 per cent of those in the United States who volunteer said it makes them feel physically healthier. Also, around 25 per cent said that volunteering had been important in helping them manage a chronic health condition.
When it comes to volunteering being important for mental health, the benefits are clear. It can help counteract the effects of stress, depression and anxiety. Indeed, the social contact aspect of helping others can have a profound effect on your overall psychological well-being.
Volunteering keeps you in regular contact with others and helps you develop a solid support system, which in turn combats against feelings of loneliness and depression. Volunteering with animals has also been shown to improve mood, reducing stress and anxiety.
The social aspect of volunteering boosts mental health © Rawpixel/Shutterstock
Finally, volunteering boosts mental health simply because it makes you happier; the so-called 'helper's high'. Human beings are hard-wired to give to others, and by measuring so-called brain activity and happiness hormones, researchers have found that being helpful to others can deliver great pleasure.
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A 2008 study from the London School of Economics examined the relationship between volunteering and happiness in a large group of American adults. The researchers found that the more people volunteered, the happier they were. Compared with people who never volunteered, the odds of being ‘very happy’ rose seven per cent among those who volunteer monthly and 12 per cent for those who volunteer every two to four weeks.
Because volunteering means choosing to work without receiving monetary compensation, people often choose to give their time to issues or organisations they feel are important or have a special connection to.
For example, if you're a big animal lover you may want to volunteer at a pet shelter. Or, perhaps you’ve living with or have recovered from an illness and want to dedicate some of your spare time to a charity that helps others living with the same condition. Volunteering like this helps address a social problem that is meaningful to you and in turn helps to build a sense of purpose, which furthermore boosts your own happiness.
“When it comes to volunteering being important for mental health, the benefits are clear. It can help counteract the effects of stress, depression and anxiety.”
You can try volunteering at any age to help build a sense of purpose, but it’s often particularly common in older adults – those that have retired or maybe lost a partner of friends. Whatever your age of life story, volunteering can be an important technique to help give your life new meaning and direction!
One other benefit of volunteering is that focusing on others can give us a deeper sense of perspective and help distract us from negative thoughts and help stop rumination. Volunteering often involves helping those in need and can be useful in showing us that, in fact, our own lives are not as bad as we thought they were.
In an increasingly competitive job market, volunteering experience can be incredibly useful. It shows potential employers that you can take initiative and that you’re willing to give your own time to improve the world for other people.
Furthermore, volunteering gives you the opportunity to practice important common skills used in the workplace, such as communication, teamwork, problem solving, planning and organization. Indeed, if you haven’t had a full-time job before then volunteering is an essential way to prove your skills when you do go for work interviews.
Boost job prospects as a volunteer © Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Also, if you’ve just graduated or looking for your first job, volunteering is an important and relatively easy way to get a foot in the door of a company you’d like to work with. Even if there's no immediate chance of employment afterwards, volunteering can help you to make connections for the future.
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Alternatively, if you’ve already had jobs and are considering a change of direction, volunteering is an important and fun way to try out different career options, especially if you’re not quite sure of where you want to go next. Indeed, volunteering offers you the chance to try out a new career without making a long-term commitment!
It's clear the benefits of volunteering are huge – improved mental and physical health, new friends and avoiding loneliness, a sense of purpose and deeper self-confidence. In turn, all of these things will help to boost your overall happiness: a win-win situation for all involved.
If you're considering volunteering, ask yourself a few questions before taking the plunge. Firstly, really think about which causes you're passionate about – it means you're more likely to enjoy and stay committed to the work.
Secondly, are you looking for regular volunteering opportunities or would you prefer a one-off project? Thirdly, what skill set can you offer and what can you hope to gain from volunteering? Good luck when you finally get going, and make sure you have fun – volunteering is important – the benefits are clear – but it's important to enjoy it too! ●
Main image: Rawpixel/Shutterstock
Have you ever or do you still volunteer now? What are the benefits for you? What did you enjoy most about it? The happiness.com community would love to hear your story below...
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