For the last two years I have volunteered for a local organization called The Ophelia Project where I mentor teenage girls enrolled in high school. While not well known, I first learned of the organization from another volunteer named Sandy who told me how much she loved the experience. She explained that although it was an eight-month long commitment per year, adding up to about 12 to 15 hours a month, the time spent was some of the most rewarding things she did in her life. Right after that conversation, I got in touch with the director of Ophelia and signed up. Sandy was right -- it is a big commitment and quite a bit of work. But she was also right about the benefits.
Looking back over my life I must admit that most of my happiest times have occurred when I was actively engaged in helping others. That's why it should come as no surprise that it is practically impossible to create a happy, meaningful and rewarding life without being of service to others in some way. Even more, new information about philanthropy shows that serving others ultimately serves us in many ways. Here are the top seven benefits we each gain by compassionate helping.
- More happiness. According to Stephen G. Post, professor of preventative medicine at Stony Brook University in New York and author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping, a part of our brain lights up when we help others. That part of our brain then doles out feel-good chemicals like dopamine, and possibly serotonin. According to Post, "These chemicals help us feel joy and delight -- helper's high." A common reaction is that "some people feel more tranquil, peaceful, serene; others, warmer and more trusting." When we volunteer we often give ourselves deeper purpose and meaning and that nearly always leads to greater happiness.
- Reduce stress. When we help others our bodies release a hormone called oxytocin, which buffers stress and helps us maintain social trust and tranquility. Along with oxytocin are the other chemicals like dopamine, which is a mood-elevating neurotransmitter. These drugs tend to push aside negative emotions and reduce the stress level.
- Relief from pain. A study done by Pain Management Nursing reports that on a scale from 0 to 10 that people's pain ratings dropped from nearly 6 to below 4 after attending a volunteer training program and leading discussion groups for fellow sufferers. Volunteering takes our mind off our pain and also makes us feel more in control of it.
- Longer lifespan. Over 40 international studies confirm that volunteering can add years to your life. In fact, current studies suggest up to a 22% reduction in mortality rates! How much do we have to do? Studies confirm that a regular commitment of as little as 25 hours per year is beneficial.
- Lower blood pressure. A study done by Psychology & Aging reports those adults over 50 who volunteered for 200 hours in the past year were 40 percent less likely to have hypertension than non-volunteers. It is believed this is accomplished because of the lower stress, and the effects of being active, social and altruistic.
- Reduce mild depression. A study of alcoholics going through AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) points out that those who volunteered to help others were twice as likely to stay clean a year later and their depression rates were correspondingly lower as well. Plus, in many cases mild depression is linked to isolation. Volunteering helps to keep a person in regular contact with others and to help develop a social support system.
- Benefit your career. That's right. A book entitled The Halo Effect by John Raynolds insists that volunteering for the right reasons can so turn your life around that the benefits will extend to your work. Raynolds says, "Remember, when you become involved, when you lead with your heart as well as your head, the result is always good." Instead of feeling depressed or unfulfilled at work, Raynolds is convinced that you will feel more happy, confident and energized when you find something that makes you feel generous and purposeful -- and that of course will spread to every single area of your life.
So does all volunteering prove beneficial? No. Dr. Michael Poulin, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo in New York says, "Helping appears to only be good for you if you really care about those you're helping." In other words, feeling resentment or obligation will erase the benefits that we might otherwise receive in both our emotions and our physiology. If you feel exploited in any way, it is better not to take the action than stress yourself out doing something for the wrong reason.
My time as a volunteer isn't always fun -- there is usually time, energy and even money involved -- but it is always meaningful and gratifying. Looking back at the times when I helped at a local food distribution service, delivered gifts for seniors, helped a young boy get braces, wrote a check when I could, and so much more, my feelings of contributing to others and my community have always boosted my awareness of the blessings in my life. Plus, I honestly feel that offering words of encouragement, and sharing ideas, on my blog SMART Living 365 is a gift to readers around the world.
A big part of what I write about is sharing ideas that can lead to a happy, peaceful and meaningful life for each of us. Even though there are lots of ways to do that, and some of them seem incredibly obvious, if you're any thing like me you appreciate being reminded of ideas that often slip under the radar or are routinely taken for granted. Volunteering and serving others are like that. So even if you already know that volunteering offers huge benefits, if you haven't done it in a while, it's definitely SMART to make it a regular part of your life.
Kathy Gottberg believes in living healthy, authentic, fearless and SMART. Follow her journey at SMART Living 365.com.