Does volunteering improve your mental health?
Volunteering is a great thing to do, not just because you are helping others, which is a worthy goal in itself, but because you, as the volunteer, also get benefit out of it. In this article, I will reveal what those benefits are.
Is volunteering fun?
The first issue I want to tackle is whether you should volunteer in the first place. Maybe you have thought about it and decided that it would be a hassle, it would be too much pressure, or that it would not be enjoyable.
I want to be honest with you: all of these things can be true.
Volunteering isn't always fun. Sometimes I find it boring. Sometimes I don't want to get out of bed and go fulfil my commitments. Sometimes it feels like the last thing I want to do.
So, if you're expecting volunteering to feel awesome all of the time, you're probably not going to get your wish.
But these are the times it is even more important to do it. When we are feeling down, that is when we need things like routine, social contact and a sense of purpose the most.
Therefore, if you are thinking about volunteering, I would encourage you to set your initial expectations low: it might not always be fun. Instead, approach it as something you are doing because it will be good for your overall wellbeing.
Below, I've listed five reasons why this is the case.
It makes you happier
I often write about Paul Dolan's book, Happiness By Design1, because I love it. And, if you buy into Dolan's narrative, how happy we are doing one particular task is a product of how much we enjoy it and how much purpose it has.
Commuting, for example, is terrible. It has no purpose and it is not enjoyable. Work is better because it has a purpose, but often little enjoyment. And trash TV is the opposite: it has no purpose but is enjoyable.
Volunteering hits the sweet spot of being enjoyable (sometimes) and having a purpose.
It gives you a sense of purpose
Following on from the first point, volunteering provides purpose. To feel energised our lives need to have purpose and meaning.
There is a lot of evidence to back to this up. Most famously, elderly care home patients were given a houseplant. Half were told the nurses would look after it, the other half were told it was their responsibility to look after it.
When they reviewed the experiment 18 months later, they found that those who had to look after the plant themselves were doing significantly better than those who did not have to take responsibility for the plant2.
Compare this to the reasons people typically give for attempting suicide: that their life is meaningless and that there is no point continuing with it.
Having a sense of purpose has a huge effect on whether we keep going in life. Volunteering is a great way to add some in.
It gives you a routine
Our mental health seems to improve when we have a routine.
This makes sense: when your head feels like a battlefield, or the aftermath of a storm, just doing normal things can help ground you and give you a sense that not everything around you is changing or being ripped apart.
Having a regular commitment means that even if things go wrong, you still have some stability in your life.
And, when you are going through a bad patch, it can be a motivator to help get you out of bed.
It provides social situations
In Do More, Worry Less, I make a big thing about the importance of social relationships. That's because they are really important. Studies show that it's more important to have friends than to eat healthy, for example.
Volunteering is a good way to maintain social contact.
It is an opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. But even if you don't do that, just having to interact with other people on a professional basis can help make you feel more normal.
Other people's cheeriness is infectious, even if it feels a bit uncomfortable to begin with.
You get to help other people
Helping others is an incredibly rewarding experience. It makes you feel good.
It can also give you a sense of perspective on the world. I find it easy to get wrapped up in my own problems. But, when I'm volunteering with my homeless charity, it reminds me that other people have it much worse.
Helping others allows you to go home at the end of the day knowing you have made the world a better place. And that the world is a better place for having you in it. That's a very powerful feeling.
I'm sold, but where do I start?
Let's say that you are sold on the idea that volunteering is good, but you're not sure where to start. How does one get into volunteering? What kinds of things can you do?
Here are some ideas:
Become a peer support facilitator. Get involved in your local anxiety support group. Help run it. Share your experiences and successes with others. After all, this is an area where you have a lot of experience in. You are an expert.
Volunteering centres and fairs. Many cities have a state-run volunteering centre designed to match people up with charities. Or they may run volunteering fairs where lots of charities turn up to pitch their opportunities and you can have a browse around to see what appeals to you.
Listening helplines. Many countries have charities who run support phone lines. These are numbers people can bring to talk about their problems. You're not expected to give advice, just provide a friendly ear for someone to talk to.
For example, in the UK, Ireland and parts of the United States, there is the Samaritan's. They provide extensive training and start you off paired up with a more experienced volunteer.
Charity shops. Many charities, especially in the UK, run shops staffed by volunteers. They have paid managers to do the organisation and training: all you have to do is turn up.
Outdoor activities. Many outdoor centres, farms and charities such as the Canal & River Trust take on volunteers. So, if you're someone who likes to spend time outdoors connecting with nature, these groups could be a good avenue to explore.
Volunteering can be an excellent way to boost your wellbeing. It is often fun to do, too, but even in the times when it isn't, you can see it as an investment in your health. It can give you a sense of purpose, a chance to help people and a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
The best way to get started is to volunteer with any groups you are already involved in, or by contacting your local volunteering centre or volunteering fair to find out what is on offer.
Published 12 March 2018. Written by Chris Worfolk.
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