Volunteering is the simple act of spending your time to benefit a cause other than your own. The word was first used to describe volunteering for military service, even though they still were paid. Benjamin Franklin created the first volunteer firehouse.
Now, volunteering opportunities are easy to find. The internet is a great tool to find opportunities near and far. I found some evidence that explored volunteering, health and depression. There aren’t strong randomized trials but there are still interesting studies that I review below.
(1) A study examined people’s motives for volunteering and their mortality rate 4 years later. The study followed a random sample of 10,317 high school graduates. The information showed that 4.3% of the people who didn’t volunteer had passed away while only 2.3% of the volunteers had passed away. In fact, the regular volunteers had an even lower mortality rate of 1.8%. Most interestingly was that people who volunteered for self-oriented reasons did not have a lower mortality rate, it was only seen in the volunteers who volunteered for the reason to help others!
(2) A study analyzed volunteering and depression. It was conducted using three waves of data. The initial amount of respondents was 3,617 in 1986. The next waves of data were from 1989 and 1994. This found that volunteering did lower depression in people older than 65 but did not in younger people. The reasoning for the benefit was potentially due to the increased social interaction in the elderly group who would have had less social interaction otherwise. Additionally, volunteering for religious causes had more benefit than volunteering for secular causes.
Focusing on others well being seems to improve my level of happiness. My efforts began when I lived in Denver. I spent some time at the Denver Animal Shelter. I thought that since I helped people with mental illnesses during the day that I would enjoy spending some weekends helping animals. This was a true animal shelter with big dogs whose barks shook the walls. I wasn’t even allowed in some of the rooms that held the more aggressive dogs. My job wasn’t a glamorous job like playing with puppies or brushing cats. My job was to scrub dog pens. It felt good to help, but I wasn’t interacting with people or animals.
In Kansas City, I also volunteered at an animal shelter. I was able to have a little more interaction with animals and people. This experience led me to adopt my cat from a different nearby shelter. My cat is a huge cause of joy in my life, so I am glad these experiences led me to him.
Moving back to Pittsburgh allowed me to step up my volunteering. There is a boys and girls club within walking distance of my apartment. Convenience helps to keep me motivated. Additionally, having a set shift increased my accountability over the “show up when you can” schedule at the animal shelters.
I don’t have much experience with kids (outside of a psychiatric hospital) so I felt that I was stepping outside of my comfort zone. Where I volunteer is a marvel with 2 basketball courts, a swimming pool, a kitchen, and even a robotics room inside. What a great resource for kids after school. The kids would sign up for certain activities after school and have a structured place to learn about robotics, read books, or just let loose and play in the gym. I choose to do gym/swim with 8-9 year-old boys. It took me a session or two to catch my stride. I started passively and wouldn’t discipline at all. Now, I have no problems with blowing my coach’s whistle and calling out orders. The kids seemed to really respond as well. They grab my clothes, fight for my attention, take the time to talk to me and ask me questions. These kids don’t worry about embarrassment as well. If I blow my whistle and tell the boys to scream as loud as they can on a count of 3, every single kid does it with heart. I only imagine what would happen if I did that in a room full of adults.
I also find it easy to justify volunteering for selfish reasons. Just as much as I am helping the kids by being a good role model I am helping myself to feel better. The gym/swim sessions are almost like a form of meditation for me because 100% of my attention is occupied by 30 screaming and running kids. My mind is too busy to worry about anything else.
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1. Konrath S, Fuhrel-Forbis A, Lou A, et al. Motives for volunteering are associated with mortality risk in older adults. Health Psychol. 2012 Jan;31(1):87-96.
2. Musick M, Wilson J. Volunteering and depression: the role of psychological and social resources in different age groups. Soc Sci Med. 2003 Jan;56(2):259-69.