9 Benefits of Volunteering That Will Inspire You to Sign Up Today
You might think the recipients of good deeds reap the greatest rewards. But research shows the benefits of volunteering flow both ways.
It’s easy to get so caught up in the busyness of life that you forget to donate your time to the greater good. But spending a few hours a week helping others or advocating for noble causes is—by pretty much all accounts—surprisingly well worth the effort. And not just because the benefits of volunteering help the community (though they most certainly do).
The act of giving back improves volunteers’ lives too, getting them out of their own heads so they can focus on something beyond their day-to-day lives and problems. “Volunteering is one of the only selfless things we do in society,” says Anil Chandrakumar, a volunteer coordinator for the New York City Parks Department. “There are 168 hours in a week. If you can spend any part of that dedicated to something bigger than yourself, it’s like a medication.”
Both health experts and social scientists agree that the benefits of volunteering are a tonic for body and mind. Donating your time to others will train you to be happy, build a community, try new things and maybe even find your purpose in life. Here are nine of the most life-enhancing ways that helping others also helps yourself.
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Benefits of volunteering
Why is volunteering important? First and foremost, it helps others. But if that fact hasn’t convinced you to join up, the personal benefits of volunteering listed below will give you a nudge in the right direction.
1. It connects you with new friends
Once you’ve graduated from school, it gets harder to meet new people with every flip of the calendar. And after a couple of pandemic years (we’d all like to forget) when we weren’t able to connect with our buddies as often or as easily as we were used to, having meaningful social connections is extra important.
Volunteering puts you in a setting where you’re surrounded by new people—full of goodwill—who likely share common interests. With that kind of setup, how can you not make more friends and contacts?
Research shows that building new friendships becomes more important as we grow older, and volunteering is a surefire way of doing that: A study in the journal Innovation in Aging found that older adults who volunteer have more friends, and they spend time with them more often.
Introverts intimidated by the prospect of meeting new people will take heart knowing that one of the greatest benefits of volunteering is finding comfort in talking to strangers.
2. It makes you happier
Volunteering boosts a feeling of well-being. How? “Research has shown that when we do something for others that brings them comfort and support, our brains produce more of what are called happiness hormones: serotonin, dopamine and endorphins,” says Trish Lockard, a volunteer with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and co-author of Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism. She says there’s even a term for this feeling—helper’s high.
People who aren’t terribly happy in the first place may benefit from volunteering most of all. A study in the Journal of Economic Psychology found that people who start out feeling down may get an even bigger mental boost from volunteering than people who already had a positive attitude.
3. It reduces loneliness
You may think you’re happier at home than away, but social distancing left millions of Americans exposed to more isolation than anyone would have thought possible. And lacking human connection doesn’t just make us feel weary or alone. It also can flood the body with cortisol, the hormone closely linked with feeling stressed out, says Lockard.
And here’s where the benefits of volunteering can come into play: Social engagement promotes a more connected mental outlook, says Lockard. And beyond that, it puts you in the path of people who long to hang out with others too. “Participating in a shared activity brings people closer together,” she says.
Plus, getting out of the house and getting more exercise are both beneficial for your state of mind.
4. It keeps you physically healthy
It’s not only your mental well-being that gets supercharged when you take the time to help others. Your heart can reap big rewards for it too. According to research from Carnegie Mellon University, older adults who volunteer for at least 200 hours per year decrease their risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure, by as much as 40%.
And blood pressure isn’t the only heart-health factor that improves. A study from the University of Massachusetts Boston found that those who volunteer are less likely to have other common markers of heart disease, such as belly fat and elevated blood glucose levels.
The benefits of volunteering go beyond your ticker: A study from the University of Kentucky found that volunteering can also lessen symptoms of chronic pain.
5. It can teach you new job skills
The hands-on experience you gain while volunteering, whether you’re working in a soup kitchen, gardening in your community or answering calls on a hotline, can help you learn new skills, build on the ones you already have and even help you learn how to set new goals. “Volunteering is great for people who want a career change,” says Chandrakumar.
How often, in the corporate world, does someone with decades of experience directly share their know-how with a complete novice? “Volunteer training can help guide you to what you want your next career to be,” says Chandrakumar. “I work with a lot of volunteers who didn’t like the cubicle and wanted to be outdoors.”
6. It helps you live longer
Are there any better benefits of volunteering than living a happier, longer life? It’s hard to imagine what that might be. But taking time to help others has a significant impact on your longevity.
In a study of adults over age 55 published in the journal Psychology and Aging, volunteering reduced mortality risk by 47%. Talk about something to be grateful for!
How could volunteering lead to a decrease in the likelihood of dying prematurely? There are several theories, the leading contender of which posits that the mood-boosting benefits of volunteering help lower stress, decreasing the risk for heart disease and even cancer.
7. It gets you out of your comfort zone
Like a much-needed digital detox, volunteering can shift you out of your usual routine and encourage you to try new things. But it can also force you to solve problems that require you to think on your feet or put you in a situation or an environment you haven’t experienced before. Sound intimidating? Chandrakumar says it absolutely shouldn’t. “Someone right next to you at one point knew as little or less than you do,” he says.
And the lessons learned from the new experiences you collect while volunteering can be even more rewarding than gaining skills and training at your actual job. “In the workforce, everyone is trying to show that they are the best and the smartest,” says Chandrakumar. “But with volunteering, everyone just wants to be helpful. When everyone can pull the rope in the same direction, it’s amazing what can happen.”
8. It keeps your brain healthy
We already know volunteering makes your heart happy and your mood more upbeat, but it also has an important impact on your cognitive skills and risk for dementia. A five-year study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that seniors who volunteered consistently reported a decrease in their cognitive complaints over time, whereas no such associations were found for the other groups. Keeping your brain active with new activities helps it stay sharp.
In addition, the steady volunteers were nearly 2.5 times less likely to be prescribed an anti-dementia treatment than those who didn’t make the time to help others.
9. It gives you a sense of purpose
In times when you feel lost, volunteering can give you a sense of purpose. “Dedicating time to a cause can give you new direction and allow you to find meaning in something unexpected,” says Lockard. It’s also an excellent way to learn how to practice gratitude or to start creating a gratitude journal.
“The nights after I taught a class, led a support group meeting or gave an interview to the local newspaper were the nights I felt most balanced and fulfilled,” says Lockard. “Knowing I am making a difference to any degree is the greatest feeling in the world.”
How to choose the right volunteer opportunity
“The secret to being effective and happy in your volunteer work, and for staying with it for a long time, is in how well matched the work is to your interests, skills and talents,” says Lockard.
Try these tips from Terri Lyon, Lockard’s co-author and writer of What’s on Your Sign? How to Focus Your Passion and Change the World, to help you create your own ideal activism opportunity.
- Find your greatest passion by creating a vision board for how you want to change the world.
- Identify the unique gifts (skills, talents and experiences) you can bring to this activism.
- Craft a unique activism opportunity ideally suited to you by combining your passion with your gifts.
- Monitor your long-term effectiveness.
- Stay motivated and learn how to avoid burnout.
Where to volunteer
We’ve mentioned that the best place for you to volunteer depends on your personal interests. Love too many things and not sure where to start? Here are five creative ways to donate your time.
Support America’s national parks
From coast to coast, America’s national parks provide a haven for wildlife and boundless adventures for people. Many national parks even have volunteering opportunities specifically geared toward children. You can learn more at the National Park Foundation’s website or through the National Park Service. (Bonus: Being in nature can help you find small moments of joy in the day and lead to a happier life.)
Ease loneliness in the elderly
Seniors often spend much of their time alone, particularly if they’re retired, widowed, have mobility issues or don’t have family in the area. Human beings thrive on connection. You can visit seniors in assisted living facilities or in hospice centers through groups such as ElderFriends, or you can contact facilities in your area.
Give cuddles to newborns
Holding, cuddling, singing to and speaking to drug-addicted babies helps them recover more quickly. Volunteer initiatives known as cuddle care have sprung up nationwide, and they require some training. Uplift has a list of hospitals that participate, but you can also reach out to local hospitals that have a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) or search online for local cuddle care opportunities.
Protect ocean wildlife
Plastic bottles, bags, cans and assorted debris eventually wind up in the ocean—and they’re killing fish, birds and mammals, who think they’re food. You can make a difference by volunteering to clean up rivers and oceans through Ocean Conservancy‘s efforts. Join a neighborhood cleanup campaign or start your own.
Prefer to volunteer without leaving your home? VolunteerMatch has more than 6,000 virtual volunteer opportunities you can do from anywhere, including blogging about vegetarian recipes for a sustainable nonprofit, translating Spanish and becoming a crisis text line volunteer who provides relief to people dealing with bullying or trauma.
- Anil Chandrakumar, volunteer coordinator for the New York City Parks Department
- Trish Lockard, volunteer with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and co-author of Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism
- Innovation in Aging: “Building Friendships Through Volunteering in Late Life: Does Gender Moderate the Relationship?”
- Journal of Economic Psychology: “Volunteering, subjective well-being and public policy”
- Psychology and Aging: “A prospective study of volunteerism and hypertension risk in older adults”
- Gerontologist: “Volunteering and Cardiovascular Disease Risk: Does Helping Others Get ‘Under the Skin?'”
- Pain Management Nursing: “The Mediating and Moderating Effect of Volunteering on Pain and Depression, Life Purpose, Well-Being, and Physical Activity”
- Psychology and Aging: “Volunteering by Older Adults and Risk of Mortality: A Meta-Analysis”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Prolonged stress may increase the risk of death from cancer”
- PLOS ONE: “Can volunteering in later life reduce the risk of dementia? A 5-year longitudinal study among volunteering and non-volunteering retired seniors”