Volunteers are a vital component for a dizzying array of nonprofit and community-based efforts, from supporting the local parent-teacher organization to delivering meals to homebound seniors, to helping scientists track whale migration or decipher far-flung constellations.
But getting involved does more than help everyone from your neighborhood to the planet: It can boost your health, too. Here are a few ways volunteering might have a direct impact on how you feel, not just on what you do:
IT LOWERS STRESS LEVELS
As we wrangle over large issues on social media, we can feel like we might win some debate points, but lose a sense of connection to others at the same time. That’s a big problem for your health because studies have shown being socially connected in a meaningful way provides strong health benefits like reduced stress and a lower incidence of loneliness and disconnect — feelings that tend to be harmful to your sense of wellness.
When you’re volunteering, especially in person, you have common ground because everyone is enthusiastic about whatever projects you’re all taking on, says Mary Ellen Hannibal, author of “Citizen Science,” a book about the importance of volunteering for science-based projects.
“When you’re volunteering, you find that people work together without talking about politics or positions,” says Hannibal. “You have volunteers of all ages, all backgrounds, doing things together like measuring beaver dams or filling a food pantry, and that’s your point of connection. You start from a place of empathy, unlike when you ‘meet’ someone online, where you might start from opposite sides of a controversial political issue.”
IT HELPS YOU LIVE LONGER
There has been ample evidence volunteering provides a big-time boost for older adults, even to the point of increasing their life spans, says researcher Fengyan Tang, PhD, a professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh.
She studies the well-being of older adults as well as their caregivers and notes volunteering not only helps improve overall physical function in seniors — often because they are getting more activity — but also boosts how they see their own health.
“When asked how they rate their health, those who volunteer regularly tend to rate it higher than those who don’t,” she says. “That tends to have an effect on longevity.”
That’s not just for seniors, either. Tang says volunteering can set up a lifetime of positive feelings that improve health outcomes as you age.
IT BOOSTS YOUR HAPPINESS
Volunteering is often a very meaningful experience, because you can feel like you’re helping to change lives or create positive transformation.
When you have meaning, happiness is likely to follow, according to Michelle Gielan, author of “Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change.” That causes a ripple effect that can lead to other great shifts, like sleeping better, eating healthier meals, losing weight, exercising more and feeling less stressed.
As each of these happiness effects layer on top of each other, and they can create long-term impacts on your health, Gielan says.
“You kind of get hooked on feeling good,” she notes. “As you begin to feel better and better, that grows and you think: How good can this get? And you want to find out. So, you keep adopting these habits that feed into that good feeling, and pretty soon you realize that you’re happy.”
WHERE TO START
There are many volunteer opportunities for a ton of good causes. Where can you find one that gets you the kind of health benefits that make a difference? Start by thinking about causes near and dear to your heart, suggests Hannibal.
That might be helping reduce hunger in your community, improving access to clean water, tutoring local kids or helping animals find good homes. The more personal a volunteer gig feels, the more meaningful it will be. Start with a site like Idealist.org or simply do a search in your city for nearby nonprofits. Keep in mind, it can take time to find just the right fit, so if one program doesn’t work for you, that’s OK — just keep looking.
“Not every volunteer gig feels right for every volunteer,” says Hannibal. “Take some time, find what works for you, and you’ll know when the right opportunity comes along. And when it does, that’s a win-win for everybody.”