Looking outwards and helping others through volunteering, rather than focusing narrowly on our own concerns, can increase our sense of purpose and meaning and improve physical and mental health. People don't necessarily volunteer because they are expecting a reward, or they think it will improve their health.
Most do it because they hope to benefit others. Some people want to gain new skills or see it as a step towards a career. Others volunteer because generosity, or charity, is part of their religious practice. For people who are regular volunteers, volunteering for its own sake becomes a strong motivator, rather than volunteering for any particular cause.
Although most won't set out to volunteer for the sake of their health, volunteers do experience greater happiness and better health. Volunteering is associated with less stress, better life adjustment, fewer feelings of hopelessness or depression, better coping, better physical health and longer life expectancy.
There are many reasons why volunteering has health benefits. It usually offers opportunities to socialise and make friends. This can be particularly important for people who are retired or elderly and at risk of physical decline, inactivity and social isolation, or of feeling unproductive.
The physical health benefits may be directly related to the type of work someone does. In Australia, a large proportion of volunteers are active in sporting clubs. They may be coaches, for example, which means increased physical and outdoor activity.
Volunteering improves a person's sense of self-worth and purpose, which may help to protect against depression. There are other rewards from volunteering, including gratitude from others and the satisfaction that comes from being able to work in accordance with one's values.
The amount of volunteer work a person does may be important for health. An American study found that the more frequently someone volunteered, the more their wellbeing increased. Going from monthly to weekly volunteering improved wellbeing to the same degree that a very substantial pay increase did.
People who volunteer report being more confident and satisfied with life. Volunteers trained to provide telephone peer support report greater self-esteem and self-confidence and reduced depression. Former alcoholics who support and mentor alcoholics attempting to give up their addiction are less likely to relapse.
People who volunteer may be happier because they develop empathic emotions. Importantly, helping others means we are less focused on ourselves.
Self-involvement can have adverse effects on health; an early study found an association between heart disease and high numbers of self-references ('I, me, my') in speech. It's been said that when we are too involved with our own worries and concerns, it's like a weight pressing down, but when we open our eyes and look outwards, the clouds part and the sun shines through.
Want to volunteer?
- Look for an organisation or a cause that you believe is important, and ideally get involved working with others.
- Find work that suits you and adds to your enjoyment of life.
- Balance your giving with a greater awareness of receiving.
- Be realistic about how much time you can commit.
- If volunteering starts to feel like a burden, is making you feel very sad about the world or critical of yourself or others, pause and think things through. While volunteers report having better mental health than non-volunteers, going beyond your limits could worsen mental health.
- If you're someone who volunteers a lot, remind yourself occasionally that you can't fix everything and you'll never be perfect, but you aredoing your best.
LISA Comment: If we are ever to break the restrictive practices against people with a disability and their families, we must stand united! We must help each other! LISA needs help in all areas!