When you volunteer, it not only benefits others, it can have a positive impact on you
It’s sometimes referred to as a “helper’s high”: those who give of themselves experience benefits that boost their emotional and physical well-being. According to a study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, “Research demonstrates that volunteering leads to better health, and older volunteers are the most likely to receive physical and mental health benefits from their volunteer activities.”
If you’ve been considering volunteering but have been hesitant because of the time commitment, the research shows that just 100 hours per year — that’s about two hours a week — provides benefits, both to you and your chosen cause. Of course, you can volunteer fewer or more hours.
Once you find a group, organization, facility, cause or charity where you can volunteer, you’ll love the benefits of volunteering:
It Connects You to Others
It’s not unusual for people to have fewer close relationships as they age, but when you live far from family and you’re retired, you may experience loneliness to the point where it causes depression. Volunteering can help alleviate the sadness that comes with loneliness. Volunteering at least two hours a week may go a long way toward easing feelings of loneliness and social isolation, according to a study of recent widows published in Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences.
“Clearly, the consequences of loneliness have important implications for health and longevity,” the study authors reported. “The death of a spouse represents a unique form of loss, and has been referred to as ‘the most stressful of life events’. Thus, reintegration into social networks — in this case through volunteering — may be particularly important for people who have experienced the loss of a spouse to death.”
It is not only widows who benefit from the social connections; any older adult will benefit from the social aspect of volunteering. In addition, volunteering often builds social connections for those you are helping. As Points of Light, in The Impact of Volunteerism, puts it: “Volunteering helps build a more cohesive, safer, stronger community, and increases the social network between communities and neighborhood. Specifically, [volunteer service programs] meet a range of community needs, such as starting an after-school program or organizing a park cleanup program…. People have better ability and knowledge to identify and understand problems in the community.”
- It Is Good for Your Mind and Body
Research suggests that volunteering keeps people mentally active, their weight in check, their heart healthy, and their memory sharp. A Johns Hopkins University study found that adults age 59 and older doubled the amount of calories they burned after volunteering in elementary school classrooms at least 15 hours a week for a year.
“Volunteering in a grade school may not seem immediately appealing to older Americans,” said Erwin Tan, Ph.D., assistant professor of geriatrics at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of the study. “But honestly, our volunteers say it’s an enriching experience, and, it turns out, it may be good for you. The real news here is that this kind of volunteer work can be designed to successfully accomplish two things: The children and teachers benefit by having more wisdom and experience in the classroom and, as this study shows, it gets the seniors more physically active, which we all know is good for everyone. It’s a potential win-win for any community.”
Another Johns Hopkins study of volunteers age 59 and older, who tutored children or took part in some other form of volunteer service for nine months, found that the volunteers were more likely to pursue brain-building activities such as doing crossword puzzles, and demonstrated increased cognitive functioning.
“As life expectancies increase, it’s important, from a public health standpoint, to delay the onset of diseases associated with aging,” said senior author Linda P. Fried, MD, MPH, dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. “This study suggests that new kinds of roles for older adults in our aging society can be designed as a win-win — for addressing important societal needs, such as our children’s success, and simultaneously the health and well-being of the older volunteers themselves.”
- It Brings Fun to Your Life
When you find a volunteer opportunity that is in an area you truly enjoy — for example, walking dogs at a local animal shelter or reading books to young children in a nearby school — the time spent will fly by because you are having fun while giving.
Chris Abraham blogged about this on huffingtonpost.com: “I think my problem was feeling that volunteerism was as onerous as cleaning my room. I thought it was only something faithful people did, or people with a lot of extra money or leisure time. Maybe I thought it was something one did just to benefit their college application.”
Abraham goes on to say that he “never knew how fun, fulfilling, enlightening, and accessible volunteering is and how much the world can change if each of us does even just a little towards making things better.”
- It Gives You a Sense of Purpose
If you’re feeling as if you’re not needed by anyone any longer, it can negatively affect your emotional health and happiness. Volunteering can give you a renewed sense of purpose because by helping others, you experience a sense of accomplishment — you are needed.
One study of older adults — Formal Volunteering as a Protective Factor for Older Adults’ Psychological Well-Being — found that “volunteering can provide a sense of purpose, as formal volunteering moderated the loss of a sense of purpose among older adults who had experienced the loss of major role identities, such as wage-earner and parent.”
How to Find the Perfect Volunteer Opportunity for You
Consider your goals and interests. You will have a richer, more fulfilling and more fun experience if you find an opportunity that meets your goals and matches your interests.
Where to find volunteer opportunities:
Museums or historical buildings
State or national parks
Service organizations such as Lions Clubs or Rotary Clubs
Local animal shelters, rescue organizations or wildlife centers
Youth organizations, sports teams and after-school programs
Places of worship such as churches or synagogues
Go to Volunteer Match, plug in your zip code, and choose from more than two dozen categories of interest, such as crisis support and politics.
Another option is Senior Corps, which is for people 55-plus who are looking to become foster grandparents, help home-bound seniors, or share their skills through community service.
Finally, before committing to volunteer, ask the following questions:
1) What is the organization’s mission?
2) What is the time commitment?
3) What are the specific duties?
It’s a commitment, but it’s one that will pay off in both tangible and intangible rewards.