The Benefits of Giving Back

How volunteering can lead to a healthier, happier life

If you give your time and expertise to a good cause — or have considered it — know that you may be helping yourself while helping others. There is a growing body of research that indicates volunteering is good for mental and physical health.

People who regularly perform meaningful work for a good cause without any expectation of compensation may experience a longer life, lower rates of depression and greater life satisfaction. Older volunteers may reap the greatest rewards, providing a sense of purpose for those who have experienced a loss of identity when their roles in their homes and community evolved as they aged.

New research published by the American Psychological Association shows that older adults decreased their risk of hypertension by 40 percent when they volunteered at least 200 hours per year — just 16 hours per month. The specific type of volunteer activity was not a factor in lowering blood pressure — only the amount of time spent volunteering.

Young people can reap the health benefits of volunteering too. When a group of tenth graders spent one hour a week working with elementary students in an after-school program as part of a recent study, the teens had lower levels of inflammation, cholesterol and body mass index after just 10 weeks compared to peers who didn’t volunteer.

Ordinary people, extraordinary rewards

“Volunteering gives me a natural high,” says Ken Frazier, 64, a Scripps Hospice volunteer. “There’s nothing like it. It energizes you. That’s what it does for me.”

This feeling — often referred to as the “helper’s high” — is a sense of elation and increased energy that comes from giving to others without expecting anything tangible in return.

The joy of altruism

Frazier’s volunteer work brings him in contact with people who are transitioning toward their end of life. While others might presume such work could lead to sadness, he reports finding genuine joy in forming bonds with hospice patients and their loved ones.

Each visit gives him the opportunity to listen, to learn and to share life experiences.

“When I step away from every visit, I feel good about what I’ve done, knowing I tried to do a good thing. Hopefully, I did make a difference for someone,” he says. “There is a common thread of compassion among volunteers — of wanting to make a difference.”

To stay well and so he can provide the best care as a volunteer Frazier keeps active, running about 30 miles a week, going to the gym three to four days a week, meditating, working in his garden and coming up with new projects to complete or hobbies to try.

These activities, along with volunteering, lay the groundwork for a fulfilling, happy and well-balanced life, full of social contact and the eager pursuit of personal interests and passions.

Volunteer ideas

If you’ve ever had an interest in volunteering, there are endless ways to experience the helper’s high. Good deeds take many forms, such as:

  • Lending a helping hand to a friend or neighbor
  • Caring for pets at an animal shelter
  • Helping at a food pantry
  • Serving food to the homeless
  • Being a tutor or teaching a child to read
  • Hosting a foreign exchange student
  • Donating money or needed goods to your favorite cause or charity

There are as many ways to contribute as there are organizations in need of volunteer assistance. The most rewarding experiences are those that fit well with a volunteer’s personality, strengths and interests.

“For me, the best part of sharing my time with others is very simple,” Frazier says. “When I share my time, I get more out of it than the patient does. I think most, if not all, volunteers would agree.”

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