You’re probably aware of the many personal benefits of volunteering, not the least of which is that volunteers tend to enjoy longer, healthier lives. You are no doubt also aware of the already hefty demands on your time: your job/s, spouse/significant other, children, aging parents, relatives, friends, your need to stay physically fit, politically informed, keep up with social media, your boss’s latest mania, etc.
Don’t Put Off Volunteering Until You Have “More Time.” Volunteering may seem to be something uniquely suited to retirees and seniors, i.e., those with lots of time on their hands. Something you figure you’ll do “when I get to those years.” A laudable ambition, for sure. But you’re missing out on a wonderful, easy, cost-free way to increase your health and longevity by deferring volunteering until you’ve run out of things to do.
The misconception is that volunteering requires hours and hours of committed effort. It certainly can, but it doesn’t need to. The essential benefit of volunteering comes from the support that you give to another human being. Someone in need. It’s less a matter of the time involved than it is of the giving of self.
Helping Others Leads to Less Stress. Recent research published in Psychosomatic Medicine (Inagaki et al., 2016), concludes that people who give social support (fancy words for helping others) are less affected by stress. Now, in case you missed the news flash – stress kills. Namely, stress depresses the immune system and can wreak havoc with our cardiovascular system, both of which tend to shorten our life and/or make us miserable. The less affected you are by stress, the more your overall well-being increases.
If the benefit of volunteering comes not from hours and hours of selfless devotion, but from the “giving of self,” how do you do that in practical terms? How do you give of yourself when you barely have time to breathe?
One simple way is to smile. Yes, smiling at people for no good reason is a way to support them, and give of yourself. Smiling at someone to reassure them that things are going to be all right is even better.
Give someone a hug. It doesn’t have to be the love-fest of the century, just a simple acknowledgement of someone’s feeling lonely, or bereft, or upset, a way of saying, “I’m with you, it’s OK.”
Listen. Listen without texting, tweeting or drifting. Listen with your ears, brain and heart. Listen with your eyes. Listening to someone with genuine appreciation or empathy for whatever they are going through or wish to communicate is one of the most powerful ways to support them. Try it with your teenagers, with that co-worker you don’t like, with your partner. even when you’re tired. Listen.
Making others feel better without interfering in their lives, fixing things for them, or enabling their drama – just offering a smile, a hug, your full-on listening – makes them feel supported, not as adrift in whatever upset/unhappiness plagues them. It doesn’t take any more of your time, simply your full attention. In return, you get to feel valuable. You benefit, whether you realize it in the moment or not, from the simple act of supporting someone.
And if you can see your way to giving an hour of your time once a week or even once a month to whatever cause rocks your boat – do it! An hour at the local animal shelter helping out, an hour spent at your local library participating in a children’s reading program, an hour distributing food at the homeless shelter – great! You’ll feel good about yourself, which is good for your mental and physical health, as you do good for others.
Even adolescents benefit from volunteering. Research published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics showed that when Canadian tenth-graders in a recent study began volunteering at an after-school program for children, the high schoolers lost weight and had improved cholesterol profiles as compared to their non-volunteering peers: “Adolescents who volunteer to help others also benefit themselves, suggesting a novel way to improve health.”
You’re may not be that far away from adolescence (OK, several decades, but who’s counting?). Maybe what benefits teenagers in such a measureable manner can benefit you too. It’s worth a try.
If you need inspiration for the long-term benefits of volunteering, take it from Mary Bochanis, 92. She’s the longest-serving Red Cross volunteer in its history. She served for the last 73 years, starting at Walter Reed Hospital (where, as a volunteer, she met her husband, when he was recuperating from a WWII injury), as well as at The Children’s Inn at the NIH for the past 26 years. In 2016, she received the Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s Lifetime Service Award for her good work. Vivacious, always with a smile, she says that giving just a little bit, one gets so much back in return. Not surprising, she has no plans to stop volunteering.