The benefits of volunteering are more powerful than you think*
The helper’s high is real. If you want to feel good, go out and do good.
For centuries, the most influential thinkers have suggested that happiness is found in helping others. As it turns out, these aren’t just words; the wisdom is increasingly supported by both scientific and sociological research, which substantiate the benefits of volunteerism on the body, mind and spirit.
By measuring hormones and brain activity, researchers have proven that being helpful to others releases dopamine — the “feel good” chemical — in our brains and lights up the same part of the brain as receiving rewards or experiencing pleasure. It’s called the “the helper’s high.”
Humans are hard-wired to give to others
Recent studies have confirmed that when we do serve others, we actually also help — and heal — ourselves. The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences is one of the first to examine peer-reviewed evidence regarding the psychosocial health benefits of volunteering. They found that volunteering can help reduce depression and is linked to better overall health and longevity.
Why? Helping others can counteract the effects of stress, anger and anxiety because of the meaningful connection that comes from it. It can also make you feel better about yourself by boosting self-confidence. Working with pets and other animals can have the same mood-boosting effect.
Similarly, helping others can counteract the feelings of loneliness, which has become nothing short of an epidemic in America. A recent study reported that nearly half of adults sometimes or always feels alone, putting them at risk for developing a range of physical and mental illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and depression.
Volunteering isn’t just a compelling way to connect with others and make friends, it can also create purpose — something that goes missing during periods of loneliness. One of the longest-running studies on happiness, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, suggests that volunteering is a way to boost happiness by providing this sense of purpose.
What’s more, in a recent survey of more than 10,000 people in the U.K., two-thirds reported that volunteering helped them feel less isolated and 75% said that they felt an improvement in mental health and well-being. These effects were especially pronounced for those in the 18-35 age bracket.
Another study of nearly 6,000 people in the United States examined recently widowed older adults. After they volunteered for two or more hours per week, their average level of loneliness subsided to match that of married adults — even after controlling for demographics, baseline health, personality traits and other social involvement.
Loneliness and isolation can also lead to cognitive decline, including memory loss, in older adults. Research suggests that people who regularly engage in mentally stimulating activities build up more neural connections — and volunteering is one way to stay engaged and stimulated.
Beyond the mental and emotional benefits of helping others, there are physical benefits, too — especially for older adults. Older volunteers tend to walk more; find it easier to cope with everyday tasks; are less likely to develop high blood pressure; and have better thinking skills, less chronic pain and increased overall well-being.
Volunteering is good for the people serving and the community served
“In addition to being blessed with big growth and prosperity, Dallas is also challenged by big needs,” says Jennifer Sampson, McDermott-Templeton, president and CEO of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. “Poverty, homelessness, hunger and health, and educational disparities are also part of the North Texas landscape — but we believe we have the collective will, resources and know-how to take on these issues and make our community better. And volunteering is a big part of that.”