Volunteer Salute

Helping others, helping ourselves: Volunteering is a win-win proposition

Whether they’re serving up meals at a soup kitchen, helping a child learn to read or lacing up their sneakers for a charity walk-a-thon, most people volunteer for a simple reason: they want to help others. 

And there’s probably not a single community group, from local synagogues to the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, to secular organizations such as the Community Food Bank and Habitat for Humanity, that doesn’t rely on volunteers to help them provide their vital services.

But people who make a habit of volunteering also know that helping others makes them feel good.

This is more than just an abstract concept. Studies show that community service confers numerous health and social benefits on volunteers, and can even have a positive impact on people’s professional lives.

A 2008 study of American volunteers by the London School of Economics found that “people who volunteer report better health and greater happiness than people who do not.”

Research by the Corporation for National and Community Service in Washington, D.C., shows that people who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer. Indeed, it shows that those who give support through volunteering “experience greater health benefits than those who receive support.” Especially among older adults, volunteer service can provide social ties that prevent feelings of isolation. Knowing they are helping others also gives volunteers a sense of greater self-worth.

Volunteering can also help older Americans with their own health problems: for example, those who suffer chronic pain reported lower levels of pain, disability and depression when they began serving as peer counselors for other chronic pain sufferers, and people who volunteered after a heart attack reported reductions in feelings of despair and depression. Volunteers also reported a greater sense of purpose in their lives.

For teens, young adults and those in their middle years, volunteering also can provide a wealth of benefits. A July 2013 study by the CNCS found that volunteers are 27 percent more likely to find a job after being out of work than non-volunteers. Volunteering can give young people vital work experience or help job-seekers keep their skills current.

Helping others can even help people deal with stress. As reported by the Huffington Post, Sandra Brown, an associate professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University in New York, found that while deciding to help others can make people feel vulnerable, the body helps us overcome these fears by releasing a hormone called oxytocin. This “compassion hormone” helps limit our exposure to stress hormones, such as cortisol. Oxytocin, the hormone that helps new mothers bond with their babies after childbirth, activates circuits in the brain that cannot be active when a person is feeling hostility. It “pushes aside negative emotions,” says Brown. Besides helping a person feel good, oxytocin also helps cells repair themselves, store nutrients, and grow, she says.

Brown’s colleague, Stephen G. Post, Ph.D., adds that when people just think about helping others, “the body doles out feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, which has a soothing effect, and possibly serotonin, one of the brain chemicals we treat depression with. They feel joy and delight — helper’s high.”

Volunteering as a family can be a bonding experience, as well as setting an example children may follow throughout their lives.

Being a volunteer is a way for people to expand their social circles and meet others with similar interests.

And volunteering can give people a change from their ordinary, day to day routines. “Many people volunteer in order to make time for hobbies outside of work,” according to HelpGuide.org.  For instance, someone with a desk job who craves more time outdoors might consider volunteering to help plant a community garden or walk dogs for an animal shelter.

Interested in volunteering in the Jewish community? Synagogue social action committees and local Jewish agencies can provide suggestions; see jewishtucson.org/resources for lists of congregations, agencies, and other local Jewish organizations.

In the wider community, check out volunteermatch.org or volunteer.unitedwaytucson.org.