At a Glance
- Volunteering can take many forms, from briefly helping out on a local project to working on an organized international program for several years.
- There are many surprising health benefits of volunteering in terms of physical, mental, emotional and social self-care and development.
- When volunteering, it’s important to do your research carefully and decide on projects and situations that are right for you.
Have you ever thought of volunteering? If you’re looking for an amazing, life-changing experience, this could be it!
Volunteering is more popular than ever these days, and there are a huge variety of ways to get involved.
Volunteering locally or spending time overseas, helping people, investing time in the care of animals, helping out a whole community or on a farm—the possibilities are almost endless.
In addition to providing valuable help and support to other people, volunteering can also bring some very impressive health benefits, including some you might not expect…
What Is Volunteering?
In its simplest terms, volunteering is using your free time to do a specific task to help other people.
It can mean offering a few hours of your free time each week or month to get involved in events, or taking a decision to dedicate an extended period of time to a particular project.
People can volunteer within their local communities and in neighboring areas or cities. Alternatively, lots of people look for overseas volunteering projects and combine it with travel.
What Do Volunteers Do?
The short answer here is everything and anything! As an individual, you can offer to help friends and neighbors; offer to take an elderly person to do their shopping when you go to do yours, or fetch shopping for them.
Many communities have soup kitchens or other services for homeless people, and will usually welcome an extra pair of hands to help prepare and serve meals, and wash donated clothes.
Some hospices and elderly care homes encourage volunteers to come and spend time visiting and talking to patients who otherwise have little personal contact.
Animal care is another popular area for volunteering. There are animal shelters in many areas which are more than happy to have extra help. Be prepared to help with all aspects of animal care—feeding, grooming, cleaning up and taking care of sick animals.
Now more than ever there are all kinds of different projects that welcome help from volunteers with all kinds of different skills. There are housing projects where homeless people are supported in building their own homes by volunteer builders, carpenters and other craftsmen.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farm (WWOOF) offers volunteering in more than 130 different countries, and opportunities to learn about all aspects of different types of organic farming.
Volunteering with children is a little more involved, since most organizations need people to have some kind of formal training, and require people to have the correct authorization to work with youngsters.
There are many different international organizations that offer opportunities to work as a volunteer abroad. The most famous is probably the Peace Corps, which requires a full two years’ service, plus three months of training, before embarking on all kinds of different projects.
The Peace Corps is open to all Americans of all ages and stages of life, and offers the opportunity to develop experience or learn new skills in a whole number of different types of projects. These are usually projects concerning agriculture, education and youth development, health, community economic development and the environment.
You can also volunteer with some organizations to help with disaster relief following a major incident. Many people from all over the world traveled to Ha
Health Benefits of Volunteering
Volunteering is an amazing opportunity, and offers many benefits to you as an individual as well as to the people, communities or animals you’re helping.
Research now supports claims that volunteering positively affects health in many ways:
Great Physical Exercise
On a basic level, getting involved in most volunteering projects requires some physical effort on your part, and anything that gets us moving is a good thing.
Volunteering on a farm or building project, many community and education projects require some exertion. If you’re lifting and carrying things regularly, use good technique, look after your back and you’ve got yourself a free workout routine!
iti and other areas of the Caribbean following the enormous tsunami in 2010, and in Texas after Hurricane Harvey last year.
Volunteering for disaster relief is no easy task—physically, mentally and emotionally. You may be required to work for long hours in difficult conditions. This video is a good basic guide as to what you might expect.
Volunteering Improves Cardiovascular Health
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 600,000 people in the U.S. die of heart disease, with almost three-quarter of a million heart attacks happening every year.
Low levels of physical activity and high blood pressure are both contributory factors to cardiovascular disease. Not only do many types of volunteering provide exercise, research also suggests it may help to decrease blood pressure and help you live longer.
Exercise for the Grey Matter
Unlike pounding away on the treadmill, most activities involved in volunteering also require some active thought processes.
Studies have found that participating in volunteer programs can significantly improve brain functioning, requires the use of many different areas of the brain and increases cognition.
Helps Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease
The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s is a form of decline in mental ability which affects memory, planning, problem solving, can cause confusion, problems with spatial awareness and changes in mood and behavior.
Scientists have found that volunteering promotes elasticity in brain tissue, and as volunteers get older, they retain more of the neural connections in the brain that are often observed as broken in Alzheimer’s patients.
Promotes Mental Well-Being
Anecdotally, volunteers report feeling good inside as a result of helping other people. There appears to be some scientific support for this phenomenon, too.
Some research studies indicate that volunteering can significantly decrease many of the symptoms of depression and reduce anxiety both in the volunteer and in the people receiving help. Many volunteers report having more energy, feeling generally stronger, calmer and have an increased feeling of self-worth through volunteering.
Some studies indicate that teenagers who participate in volunteer work are less likely to have suicidal tendencies, fail less often at school, and are less likely to have an unplanned pregnancy. They also tend to have higher self-esteem and are less likely to become involved in substance abuse compared with teenagers who don’t volunteer.
Research indicates there may be a chemical neural pathway that contributes to these feelings. In return for our selfless act of volunteering, scientists have also discovered that the brain gives us a natural reward.
This is a chemical neurotransmitter which is released during a pleasurable activity. Dopamine makes us feel good—a kind of natural high—and makes us want to repeat the behavior in anticipation of the reward.
It’s dopamine that makes us feel good after smashing a workout or during sexual intercourse, and is a major factor in drug addiction. Some research indicates that volunteering triggers the reward center in the brain to release extra dopamine, which explains the feel good factor in volunteering.
Increases Perceived Quality of Life
Volunteering is commonly associated with young people; it’s a popular thing to do in a gap year. Increasingly, though, older people are becoming more involved in volunteering. People who are retired often volunteer, as do people considering changing their career.
Some studies show that while volunteering generally increases the life satisfaction of volunteers, the biggest increases are experienced by older volunteers, who also perceive greater changes in their health compared to younger volunteers.
Volunteering Promotes a Sense of Purpose and Efficiency
Even though sometimes we think there aren’t enough hours in the day, some sources suggest that donating a little of your time to a volunteer project actually helps us to feel as though we have more time.
Cassie Mogilner, associate professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania says that using your time to help other people can make you feel more ‘time-affluent’.
If you’ve arranged to volunteer for a certain number of hours each week, to work this into their diaries, people tend to become more efficient and waste less time in other areas of their lives.
In addition, as volunteering increases the sense of self-worth and makes people feel more confident and useful, as a result, people can naturally become more efficient in other areas of their lives.
Increased Social Confidence and Interaction of Volunteering
At different times in our lives, we can all suffer from a lack of social interaction, or we might feel a little shy about getting involved in new activities. Volunteering is a great way of getting involved in an organized way. The main focus is on the activity you’re volunteering for, not on you, so it can make it easier to mix with people.
In addition, if you choose an activity you’re really interested in, you already have some things in common with the people you meet. Volunteering can be a great way to expand your social network and meet new people.
Volunteering often brings people together from all different nationalities, cultures and walks of life. This can really enrich your life experience and open your mind to new ideas and new ways of thinking.
Some research indicates that adolescents who help other people are likely to be three times happier than those who don’t, and are able to more easily integrate in social situations.
Other Benefits of Volunteering
One of the most amazing things about volunteering is that when many people start out, they see the situation as them helping other people and contributing something positive to the world.
What lots of people don’t anticipate is what they get out of the experience. It’s often quite an amazing, beautiful experience, and it’s really hard to put into words.
Volunteering can help put the world into a little perspective. I recently watched an online clip of a girl whose father took her outside to reveal her sixteenth birthday present.
Even though she didn’t have her license yet, it was a spotless, gleaming Lamborghini. Her response? “What is THAT?…it’s the wrong color…the wrong model…and it’s not even new…”.
Seeing people who don’t have the best of everything, perhaps struggling to make ends meet or unable to feed and clothe their family is often an eye-opening experience. It’s an image that most of are familiar with through the media, and charity fundraising events.
But it’s a whole different experience to live with those same people, to see them every day, and get to know them and their families. Learning that people can find joy in life no matter what their situation can be a profound and life-changing experience for many people.
Everything Makes a Difference
Just talking to people can make a huge difference to other people’s lives, but it can also bring new meaning to your own life experiences. Years after my father died of terminal cancer, I visited a friend with the same prognosis.
While other visitors didn’t know what to say, I took him some huge bright sunflowers, and approached the situation pragmatically. I respectfully discussed with him what he was going to do with his remaining time.
We ended up having a great time—and a few laughs—starting off his bucket list of things to do, places to go and people to spend time with. I realized afterwards that it had given me some measure of meaning and sense of purpose to losing my own father.
It was a great, uplifting experience for me, and volunteering can have a similar effect. It doesn’t matter what you get involved in, everything you do to help other people makes a difference to you and to them.
Who Knows Where Volunteering Might Lead?
Although volunteering is never going to earn you a decent salary, many volunteering opportunities do come with some benefits like food and accommodation.
This can be a very economical way to see the world, get hands-on, practical experience, and learn new skills. You wouldn’t be the first person for whom volunteering has led to a whole new vocation in life, and given them a career that they really enjoy.
Many educational institutions and future employers look more favorably on applications which give details of volunteer work. It can be taken as a sign of having a sense of community and social responsibility, being a good team player, and generally being a more well-rounded individual.
What About Money?
Most volunteering projects in local communities involve donating your time, with the only costs incurred by you being travel to and from wherever you’re volunteering.
A few projects may pay minimal expenses, but these are few and far between, since most are run by charitable or not-for-profit organizations that rely on support and donations to meet their expenses.
There are some opportunities for some people with specialized skills to receive monetary compensation for working on a volunteer contract. These are not common, though, and may require a lengthy application process against tough competition.
Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO) International offers a salaried benefits package to skilled, experienced volunteers working on a wide variety of projects to improve living conditions and help develop communities in Africa and Asia.
It’s possible to find volunteer work on organic farms and various other projects in exchange for accommodation and meals. Some farms may also pay a small amount for the work you do, or include a small living allowance. This is a great way to volunteer for a few weeks at a time.
Some projects require you to pay for your own travel expenses, which can be expensive if your plan involves international flights. There are some organizations that include one outward and one homeward flight in their benefits package.
Whatever you choose to do as a volunteer, your safety is your primary concern. If you volunteer independently, even in your own community, make sure you’re safe.
People are vulnerable and need help for many different reasons; you’re unlikely to know their full story. Some may have medical or psychological issues so be professional about volunteering.
Avoid being left alone with someone you don’t know well. If you’re in this situation, open the door and stay close to it, and minimize the time before you can leave.
While volunteering may involve some less than pleasant tasks at times, it should be appropriate to the situation. If anyone asks you to do something and you’re not comfortable with it, don’t do it.
Don’t leave yourself in any vulnerable situations, and always make sure someone you trust knows where you are and when you will return home.
Volunteering overseas through an organization is generally safe. Many organizations provide training in local cultures and customs, and provide safety advice for their volunteers. It’s still a wise idea, however, to make a plan to keep in regular contact with someone at home to be on the safe side.
Register with your embassy before traveling overseas, and give them all the specific details about your plans.
Research everything thoroughly from start to finish. Think carefully about what kind of projects you want to volunteer for, how long you want to do it for, and where.
If travelling abroad, arm yourself with information not only about the project, but also about the local people, cultures and customs, the general area and the laws in that country. Make sure you have access to a bank account or credit card in case of an emergency.
Investigate local landmarks and places of interest before you go. Of course, you’re going to be busy, but you’re also likely to get some free time and opportunities to go and explore.
Make sure you’re clear about what your financial situation will be when you are volunteering. Do some research, find out what personal items you’ll need regularly, and make sure you have the means to at least have the basics.
Enrich Your Life with Volunteering
There are a wide variety of opportunities to get involved in volunteering, and to work on all kinds of interesting projects in many different countries as well as those in your own community.
Volunteering can be an incredibly fulfilling experience which gives a huge sense of reward. Not only does volunteering help other people, it can be a truly life-changing experience which makes us thankful for our lives, family and friends.
Many people recognize the benefits of volunteering in terms of increasing life experience, opening our eyes to the world and learning about other people and cultures. It’s frequently seen as a very positive point when applying for educational courses and employment.
More than this, though, there are some impressive and surprising health benefits. Volunteering can provide physical exercise, promote cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of heart disease. Research suggests it can help you live longer, keep your brain healthy and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Other health benefits of volunteering include increased self-esteem, reduced risk of anxiety and depression, improved quality of life, better social interaction and an amazing sense of well-being.
As well as stimulating the release of neurotransmitters that make us feel good, volunteering also gives a sense of improved well-being to the people you help. It can gives us a sense of perspective and help us appreciate our own lives, friends and family.
Volunteering can be an amazing, and sometimes very moving experience which has a big impact on the rest of the volunteer’s life.
As long as you choose an activity you’re interested in, think carefully, research your options and look up all the information you can, volunteering can be an incredibly fulfilling experience and beneficial to health in many different ways.