A friend recently joined the Board of our neighborhood association, and brought with him some fresh new ideas and energy. His name is also Bruce, and he started referring to himself as Bruce-02, since I had been roped into — I mean motivated to join — the Board first. I call him 2 for short. He had tried unsuccessfully to retire from regular work several times, but kept being drawn back to his longtime career in academia. He finally managed to retire, though, but as his wife sadly noted he came down with a case of VD — Volunteer Disorder. He has found himself deeply involved in volunteer work, and seems to take on one thing after another. That was, oddly enough, how we had met a year or two ago, shoveling topsoil and mulch for a community garden.
2 made a suggestion that the neighborhood association do something to make people more aware of volunteer opportunities as a benefit to the community. He wrote an article on the topic (which you can see here: Volunteer Opportunities) for our neighborhood website. It’s mostly local and very convenient. The response to it has been, shall we say, politely reserved. Crickets. It’s surprising how hard it is for our little elementary school to get people to come out and see the kids safely across the street; that’s the easiest, lowest-involvement job on the whole menu! Maybe people are saving up their strength for more challenging work, such as mentoring a young teenager one-on-one, teaching a refugee family how to navigate Safeway, or going down to a storm-ravaged area to help clean up.
I remember years ago, when Stormy and I were in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria, hearing a new volunteer brimming with enthusiasm, “This is the Olympics of volunteering!” I liked that phrase, albeit a little too self-congratulatory from anyone other than one just out of training. It occurs to me now, poking at the analogy, that there is a whole rich and vital world of sport — with life-lifting excitement, growth, skill, challenge, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat — outside the Olympic arena. You don’t have to sweat and strain and make it to the highest level of a sport in order to enjoy and benefit greatly from it. Wait, benefit? Who said anything about benefits? Isn’t volunteering supposed to be generously and selflessly giving of your time and talents? Wouldn’t it be kind of cheating to do it because it benefits you?
Aha! That’s the dirty little secret. The best volunteers do it because it benefits them. They get enjoyment, and satisfaction, and fulfillment, and even better health out of volunteering. (Don’t tell, or there goes that “selfless” image.)
The beneficial effects of volunteering have been studied and documented by the Mayo Clinic, the National Institutes of Health, the Harvard School of Public Health, and others. Some of the findings seem useful and applicable to anyone’s life, even people who already have too much to do. As a reminder, before we start the list (compiled in no particular order from several sources),1 2 3 if something is both good and available, the best time to go after it is not maybe next month. It is now. So here we go.
Volunteering decreases the risk of depression, especially for older adults. This one is pretty easy to see: getting outside of yourself does wonders. Social interaction and participation in a support system can reduce or forestall depression.
Reduction in stress levels. Social interaction and the building of networks can buffer or outright alleviate stress, and a reduction in stress reduces risk of illness. The sense of meaning and appreciation that comes from positive interaction with others can have a stress-reducing effect.
Meeting new people and developing new relationships, by participating in shared activities together, helps you keep sharp in social skills with others. The network you build in sharing common interests can spill over into other areas of your life and lead to unanticipated benefits from relationships that would otherwise be unavailable.
Finally, quoting the Mayo Clinic article cited below — and this is a big one:
Volunteering may help you live longer. An analysis of data from the Longitudinal Study of Aging found that individuals who volunteer have lower mortality rates than those who do not, even when controlling for age, gender and physical health. In addition, several studies have shown that volunteers with chronic or serious illness experience declines in pain intensity and depression when serving as peer volunteers for others also suffering from chronic pain.
My friend in the neighborhood hit on some pretty important ideas when he suggested that getting people to volunteer would be good for the community. Now we can see that it clearly has benefits for those who make volunteering a part of their lives. One good thing that can come from it, at the very least, is becoming a friend in the neighborhood.
- Mayo Clinic, May 18, 2017: Helping people, changing lives: The 6 health benefits of volunteering
- NIH (Abstract): Volunteering and health benefits in general adults: cumulative effects and forms
- Atlantic Magazine, Dec 30, 2015: The Physiological Power of Altruism