Volunteers help the communities they serve. But did you know that volunteering can boost your mental health?
Some of the benefits of volunteering include engaging in social interactions with other people, being a helper, making a positive impact, and being part of something bigger than yourself.
No matter how you look at it, one thing is clear, volunteering is good for the world and beneficial for your well-being.
About 26% of adults in the United States volunteer. The majority of volunteers are women with a college education, although many men volunteer as well.
Volunteers share a lot of similar personality traits. For instance, they believe that they can make a positive difference and that change will come as a result of their efforts. They’re highly motivated to achieve great things and tend to be friendly, enjoy social interactions, and have high levels of empathy and concern for the welfare of others. If you share any of these traits, you could be a great volunteer.
Benefits of Volunteering
One of the biggest benefits of volunteering is that the more you do it, the happier you become. You don't need to already be happy to benefit from it or participate. In fact, studies show that people who start with lower levels of well-being may get an even bigger boost in happiness from volunteering.
Some of the other mental benefits you can expect to experience as a volunteer include:
The "Helper's high." This is a term used to describe the feeling people have after volunteering. It feels like a prolonged calmness, a reduction in stress, and a greater sense of self-worth after doing something kind for someone else.
Life satisfaction. Volunteers experience greater satisfaction with life and life purpose, increased self-confidence, and a greater sense of identity.
Enjoyable aging. Older people have found that volunteering may reduce the onset of cognitive decline and is related to lower rates of depression and loneliness.
Why is volunteering so beneficial for your mental health? There may be a few different reasons:
- Volunteering is rewarding — when we help others, we feel good
- Volunteering boosts our social connection and sense of belonging
- Volunteering keeps us connected, even in retirement
- Volunteering can also be a great way to build professional skills and experience new opportunities
Different Types of Volunteering
Looking for a way to get involved? Here are a few different types of volunteer opportunities to consider:
Traditional Volunteering. This is the type of volunteering most people are familiar with. A person donates their time to a cause they believe in without expecting anything in return. Several non-governmental organizations and nonprofits are looking for people to help. These projects are sometimes only a few hours long or involve a longer-term commitment of an entire day, a few weeks, or even a few years.
Gap Year Volunteering. It's common for students graduating high school or attending college to take a year off to volunteer for various organizations. This generally involves a greater commitment where you may be helping out in a foreign country, sometimes for a few weeks or as long as a year. It's important to do your research before making this type of commitment to ensure it's a good fit for you and that it's safe.
Voluntourism. This a combination of tourism and volunteering all in one experience. This is often something that you can sign up for through an agency or organization. Depending on what you're interested in, it could be a great opportunity to see a different part of the world, meet new people, and make a positive difference.
Online volunteering. In the age of COVID-19, online volunteering has become more popular. This is a unique way to get involved because it doesn't require you to go anywhere. You can do everything online. This could include things like tutoring students, connecting with the elderly, proof-reading articles, or providing translation services.
Tips to Use Volunteering to Improve Your Well-Being
When you're looking for volunteer opportunities, it can be helpful to ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I want to do something that is aligned with my professional skill set or something completely different?
- Do I want to volunteer in person or remotely? Many nonprofits have adapted to the reality that in-person opportunities can be unrealistic for some volunteers. Remote opportunities are endless, and all you generally need is a computer and a phone.
- Do I want a one-time engagement or a recurring, long-term volunteer opportunity? Volunteer opportunities come in all shapes and sizes. Organizations can have one-day needs, like staffing a fundraiser or a conference as well as recurring needs like mentoring that require a longer time commitment.
Limits of Volunteering as a Mood Booster
Volunteering can feel validating, but make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. You can do good for others, but it’s still important to take care of yourself and listen to your own needs.
It’s also important to consider that while volunteering can be a powerful tool for regulating and shifting your emotions, it's not a substitute for mental health treatment. Also consider talking to a licensed mental health professional.