The mental and physical health benefits of volunteering

Ulster Federal Credit Union employees volunteering at RCAL. (Photos courtesy of United Way of Ulster County)

Our towns run on volunteers. They serve on boards and commissions, arts organizations, food pantries and soup kitchens, historical societies, emergency departments, environmental organizations, and many more groups that residents rely on but can’t afford to support financially. All those volunteers must get something out it, or they wouldn’t keep serving the community.

What volunteering is not:

A tedious duty you take on out of guilt that you have more money or opportunity than somebody else.

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Paul E is the lead tax preparation volunteer at United Way of Ulster County.

A social obligation you do as fast as possible so you will feel deserving of doing something that’s fun. 

A task to fill up your time when you don’t have enough to do.

Okay, that last one might be appropriate in some cases. Retired people often turn to volunteering when they have time on their hands, but most of them also have a sincere desire to give back after years of being supported by their community. The jobs I took on when I volunteered out of a sense of guilt or out of boredom didn’t last long.

I find the best volunteer experiences come from pursuing activities I’m interested in and offering skills I enjoy exercising. If you’re not enjoying it, you’re not going to keep doing it, and you’re probably not going to do a very good job. 

I’m not saying every moment has to be bliss. There will be aspects of every volunteer opportunity that are challenging. You need a sense of altruism, a desire to give, since you’re not getting paid. 

If you’re thinking of taking on a volunteer job, seek one that includes an element of personal motivation. Enjoyment, however, is not the only advantage of volunteering. People who serve as volunteers receive many benefits, both mental and physical.

Volunteering reduces depression. Research by the Corporation for National and Community Service found that people who regularly volunteer have lower rates of depression than people who don’t. In the case of retirees who may feel isolated or bored, volunteering gets them back out into the community and energizes their lives with a sense of purpose. 

To avoid burnout, a volunteer can commit to the number of hours that fits their current lifestyle and capacities. Without the need to maintain career momentum, working for free tends to be less stressful than working for money.

Volunteering connects you with other people. Most volunteer work requires social interaction in a structured setting. Even if you’re shy and not good at small talk, you’ll be able to share information towards a common goal. Teamwork provides a sense of unity and satisfaction. 

You also have a chance to meet like-minded people, or you might meet people you wouldn’t meet otherwise. Impressed with the fire department’s response to Hurricane Irene, I joined as a social member (not a firefighter), partly because all my friends were transplants from urban areas, like me. I wanted to meet people who had lived in the town their whole lives and had a different perspective from mine. For a similar reason, I taught English for the Ulster Literacy Association, knowing I’d meet people from other countries.

Volunteering makes you feel virtuous. When a friend of mine had a baby that turned out to have special needs, I spent one afternoon a week taking care of the baby. 

There was something liberating about performing a service for free, without worrying how much money I was making, knowing my service was of value to a stressed-out mother. Even if the babysitting was not always easy, it was gratifying to know I was capable of giving without expectation of return.

Bob C. is a volunteer tax preparer at United Way of Ulster County.

Volunteering teaches new skills. Often you volunteer because you have a skill to offer, but the experience you gain almost invariably involves learning something new. As a church member, I went from passive listening to learning how to compile a reading and run a Wednesday night service, which I really enjoy. Later I became treasurer and was trained in the use of accounting software, a skill I might get to use elsewhere one day.

Volunteering can lead to paid work. When I had a longing to revisit my childhood passion for horses, I volunteered at an equine therapy program for kids with disabilities. One thing led to another, and ended up with a job feeding horses at a local barn four mornings a week, living out my youthful dream.

You could volunteer at a nonprofit organization you care about. Once the staff sees how capable you are, you might be asked to take on more responsibility for pay. This route may be more effective than interviewing for a job and competing with other candidates, although it will take a little longer to reach the goal.

Volunteering supports physical health. A Carnegie Mellon University study, which focused on adults over the age of 50, found that participants who volunteered regularly were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers. Research at the University of British Columbia followed adolescents who spent one hour a week working with elementary school children in after-school programs. After ten weeks, they had lower levels of cholesterol and cardiovascular inflammation than members of a control group. 

These examples are just a few of the many studies that demonstrate health benefits.

Volunteering provides exercise. Most types of volunteer work require some kind of physical activity, a boon to those of us with sedentary lifestyles. From handing out flyers for a political candidate to running a table at a library fair, gentle but regular movement can improve muscle tone, increase stamina, and lengthen life span.

Volunteering keeps organizations you love alive. When I was acting in a community theater, I was having lots of fun, but when I was invited to join the board of directors, I thought it sounded tedious. 

At first I said no. Somehow I got talked into going to a board meeting, where I realized that not only was it interesting to be involved in running a theater, but the theater would not exist without people to run it. I helped select plays, find directors, and make decisions that shaped the theater’s direction. I was even president of the board for a year, surprising myself by taking on responsibility I didn’t know I was capable of, which brings us to another benefit:

Volunteering increases self-esteem, not only from helping others but also from exercising talents and learning new skills. Flexing your abilities in the world leads to self-confidence as well.

I’ve had jobs I’ve really loved, but volunteering has provided some of the most satisfying experiences of my life.

There is one comment

  1. Bob

    I volunteer one day, each week at a local food pantry, that provides for over one hundred families, the disabled, single adult’s, and couple’s, who might be down on their luck, and seniors, each and every week. I, myself, am a disabled senior, and receive so much more than sustenance of my body, (I get a food box, if I need, also); I, over the years now, have had the blessing of seeing the results of my fellow volunteers, and the fruit’s our work and dedication. I see beautiful children, grow into, all of our combined futures, becoming caring young adults, giving back to the community themselves. I see families strengthened, because the burden of feeding their loved one’s, is lightened, at least a bit. I see seniors, who now may be more capable of paying their rent’s, or for medication’s and all their other many need’s. I see these fellow volunteers, of mine, beam with accomplishment, full heats and soul’s, and loaded with harmonic peace of mind. And, myself? What do I get out of it, other than my own lightening of the accumulated trammel of life? Well, I receive all that the author states above, as I fully concur with those written words, however, I also feel my heart beat full of love, and get too watch as my enlightened spirit soars!

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