Volunteering: The difference it makes to your mental health

Research shows its health benefits across different life stages
Volunteering: The difference it makes to your mental health

Are you involved in a volunteering activity? If not, it might be a good idea to start now.  Research increasingly points to its benefits for personal wellbeing. It’s no accident that science journalists are touting this impact with  article titles such as “To feel good, do good.” The link between wellbeing and volunteering is substantial, beginning from adolescence and continuing all the way into old age. Under the banner of positive youth development, studies show the positive effects of volunteering on teens. It translates to a lower likelihood of pregnancy or drug use, and positive academic, psychological, and occupational outcomes than non-volunteering peers.

In one such research study, Dr Jane Pilavin at the University of Wisconsin found that even at-risk adolescents who volunteer reap benefits in the form of self-esteem, social connection, and belongingness. The experience also seemed to help them resist the damaging effects of bullying. Teenage health gains are also seen; as Dr Hannah Schreier at New York’s Mt Sinai School of Medicine reported, high-schoolers who participated in a mentoring program with children showed lower cholesterol levels and body mass compared to those in the group that did not take part.

How about midlife and beyond? A study by Dr Peggy Thoits and Dr Lyndi Hewett at Vanderbilt University found that volunteering adults scored higher than non-volunteers on aspects of personal well-being like happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, and physical health. The researchers also found proof for a personality-and-volunteerism “cycle”— in which people who are happier and have higher self-esteem are more likely to volunteer, which further boosts their well-being. More recently, Dr Martin Binder and Dr Andreas Freytag — in a large-scale study involving British households — reported that volunteerism sustained over time steadily bolstered individuals’ happiness and strikingly, no “drop-off effect” in mood occurred. The researchers argued that public policy-makers should more strongly encourage adult volunteering — such as by publicizing its payoff in greater personal happiness.

For those in retirement years, scientific evidence is likewise strong. In a representative study, Dr Nancy Morrow-Howell of Washington University and her colleagues found that older adults who volunteer — and who engage in more hours of volunteering — reported higher levels of wellbeing compared to non-volunteers with similar mental and physical health. In short, the findings are incontrovertible: If you want to boost your happiness and enhance your social relations, then give your time and skills to help others. 

Such scientific findings are making an impact on India. Highlighting the importance of civic engagement and volunteering for India’s huge youth population, Dr Rachana Bhangaokar and Dr Dulari Mehta at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda provided a detailed case study of a young man who found his “purpose in life” through volunteer activity involving animals. They concluded that “As a developing nation India {must}…create a wave of `purposeful youth years’ to enhance “nation-building and societal betterment.”” 

In Delhi on August 11, 2017, to commemorate International Youth Day, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MoYaS) organized a National Consultation on Youth Building Peace. Relevant to its mission to promote youth-led organizations in peace-building activities, MoYas issued an unprecedented report on youth volunteering and simultaneously launched India’s online volunteering platform. It allows youth networks, volunteer-involving organizations, civil society organizations, public institutions, and state governments to get free support from online volunteers.

Initiating Action

With countless opportunities available for volunteering, what’s best for you? Here are six recommendations:

1) Know the causes or callings that interest you — whether improving parks, joining an arts council, or reading to schoolchildren. You’ll be more effective as a volunteer if you’re enthusiastic about the activity, rather than forcing yourself to “do good.”

2) Identify the particular skills you can offer, such as computer expertise or musical performance.

3) Decide whether you want to learn something new, as many organizations will train volunteers.

4) Don’t over-commit. Balance your time carefully to avoid putting extra stress on yourself that might lead to burnout.

5) Consider serving as an online volunteer - if you’re limited by time, transportation access, or physical ability, it’s possible to help others through the Internet or phone.

6) Consider volunteering with family members or friends. Research shows that you’re likely to become closer by serving others.   

Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org 

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