Mental Health Benefits of Volunteering
Although volunteering and philanthropy are generally directed towards the health of society rather than an individual, there are many personal benefits to helping those around you. On a personal level, I have found the volunteering I have done through YVC extremely gratifying. It feels nice to help others in a way that is extremely personal; I often get more out volunteering – lessons or experiences – than I feel I give.
Studies have shown that those who donate time feel socially connected. It allows people to ward off loneliness and even depression. There are many factors involved in mental health problems, which often can’t be solved with volunteering alone. However, volunteering can have many positive effects on an individual’s life. Volunteering can also positively impact the physical health of a person. A growing body of evidence suggests that people who give their time to service may experience lower blood pressure and an extended lifespan. In a recent study from Carnegie Mellon University, adults over 50 who volunteer regularly are less likely to develop high blood pressure. High blood pressure is associated with heart disease, stroke, and premature death. This study does have some missing information, as people who volunteer may be more likely to eat healthier or exercise, which is also associated with lower blood pressure.
Volunteering itself can increase physical activity, especially in people who aren’t otherwise active. According to the lead study author Rhodesia Sneed, a doctoral candidate in social and health psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, it may also reduce stress.
“Many people find volunteer work to be helpful with respect to stress reduction, and we know that stress is very strongly linked to health outcomes.”
Researchers are still trying to provide the specific characteristics of volunteering that provides the greatest physical health benefit. In the Carnegie Mellon study, they found that 200 hours of volunteering a year significantly lowered blood pressure. Other studies have found that as little as 100 hours provided similar benefits. Sneed speculates that mentally stimulating volunteer activities, like tutoring or reading, might be the most helpful. These activities may help maintain healthy memory and thinking skills, while
“activities that promote physical activity would be helpful with respect to cardiovascular health, but no studies have really explored this.”
A 2012 study by Sara Konrath, Andrea Fuhrel-Forbis, Alina Lou, and Stephanie Brown published in Health Psychology found that individuals who volunteered regularly lived longer, but only if their intentions were truly pure and related to the betterment of society as a whole.
As March is Mental Health Awareness Month, it is extremely important to recognize how volunteering can improve the overall health of a community, and also the mental health of an individual. Many of my absolute favourite projects have related to mental health, sometimes indirectly. I have consistently found that projects with underlying themes of mental health allow me to manifest inspiration from my environment that I can use to make myself feel better. Again, there are many genetic and chemical factors that contribute to mental illness, so volunteering may not always be helpful, but it has often leads to a greater attachment to the community, and therefore, more overall happiness, gratitude, and satisfaction.
Physical effects on the body, such as lowered blood pressure, can easily be measured. However, there is also a great deal of information available on the social value of service. These two things work together and can have a significant impact on the overall health of a person.
Volunteering can make a person feel needed and appreciated, boosting self-confidence. It can also help an individual feel good about themselves, knowing that their actions have important and lasting effects in the community. By directly helping others in their community on a regular basis, many are able to understand their value and role in the world. Volunteering is truly for everyone; many people who have trouble with social interactions and anxiety can become more comfortable over time. Additionally, it can allow people to build meaningful connections and understand their role in society.
Social science researcher Francesca Borgonovi found, in a study based on self-reported data on happiness and health, that formal volunteering allowed individuals to feel less lonely, reducing their propensity to experience depression. Throughout the study, the empathetic response felt while volunteering was found to increase happiness. Especially for young people living alone, working towards the same goal with others can diminish loneliness. An individual that surrounds themselves with people who hold similar interests is likely to have a strong support system, which, despite genetic or environmental vulnerability, can decrease depression. Volunteering can be a tool used to cope with depression, as it creates accountability and can facilitate a co-dependence that may be helpful in overcoming emotional afflictions and trauma.
On a very basic level, shifting focus from the individual to the community can help people escape everyday stresses; often, shifting one’s attention to another’s situation can put their own problems into a realistic perspective.
If all of that was not enough to convince a person of the value of volunteering, a 2012 study in Health Psychology showed that even the life expectancy of volunteers is longer. Volunteers who selflessly volunteer, as opposed to volunteering for resume building, experience the aforementioned emotional benefits.
Through my personal experiences, I know many of these benefits to be true. Of course, the main purpose of volunteering is to benefit others and society around you. However, it is good to know that there are also many personal benefits. Combining the physical and mental health benefits, along with the plain fact that helping others makes an individual feel good, there are many reasons a person should start volunteering. At any age, people can and should begin volunteering, no matter if they are old or young. If you already volunteer, encourage others around you to join you, as they can help themselves while they help other. Aristotle surmised that the essence of life is
“To serve others and do good.”
Hi, I’m Connor! I’m fifteen years-old and have been volunteering with YVC in Calgary for over a year. I enjoy working on projects focusing on mental health and the environment. I have lived in Calgary all my life, and I enjoy the strong sense of community and diversity that my city has to offer. Last year, I received the award for the highest overall average in grade ten, and I hope to study neuroscience after high school.
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