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Mental Health Benefits of Volunteering

By Lifestance Health on June 17, 2021

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”

This famous proverb holds a substantial amount of wisdom, and research supports the theory that volunteering benefits your mental health in many ways.

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Volunteering Builds Confidence

Volunteering not only benefits your community but also builds your confidence levels and improves your mental health. When you volunteer, you might step into unfamiliar environments and challenge yourself to learn new skills. Additionally, you may also work with people or cultures you never would have otherwise been in contact with. Though it can be uncomfortable at first, you will build confidence and a sense of accomplishment, feeling empowered by stepping out to serve others.

Confidence builds your health by:

  • Reducing social anxiety
  • Improving relationships
  • Reducing stress
  • Increasing energy levels
  • Improving sense of self-efficacy

Volunteering Provides a Sense of Purpose

Do you feel like you want to make a positive difference in the world? If so, you have plenty of company. Your brain is hard-wired for altruism, which might be part of the reason we innately want to make a difference in the world. One way to make it happen is through volunteering.

According to the results of the 2017 Deloitte Volunteerism Survey, 74% of people felt that volunteering gives them a greater sense of purpose. Feeling fulfilled by a sense of purpose is good for both your physical and mental health. In one study, people who reported a greater sense of fulfillment and direction in life were more likely to outlive their peers.

Volunteering can fan aflame your passions and give you wonderful opportunities to make a difference in the world. Discover for yourself the mental health benefits of fulfillment through volunteering your time and talents to others in your community.

Volunteering Decreases Loneliness

Loneliness is detrimental to both your mental and physical health. Almost half of Americans report they feel lonely or socially isolated. 43% of seniors report regular loneliness, and there is a 45% increase in mortality in seniors who report feeling lonely. Researchers compare loneliness to being as harmful to your health as obesity or even smoking fifteen cigarettes each day.

Additionally, loneliness can lead to depression. However, the answer isn’t just to surround yourself with people because you can have a sea of people around you and yet still feel lonely. Volunteering decreases loneliness because the process of serving others builds connections. Experiencing a connection with another person has tremendous mental health benefits.

Volunteering Builds Connection to Others

Harvard’s Grant and Glueck ongoing research studies, conducted over the past 80 years, reveal that strong relationships are vital to our mental health by providing satisfaction and happiness over the long term.

The key to mental health benefits from relationships, however, is authentic connections rather than simply knowing many people or having an abundance of social media followers. When you volunteer in your community, you work side-by-side with people who share your interests and passions for the same cause you also support, and this is what builds connection.

Volunteering Increases Happiness

If you want to be happy, be kind to one another. And what better way to be kind than to volunteer to help others directly or indirectly.

When you help others, your brain releases neurochemicals, sometimes called the Happiness Trifecta. Oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin make up the Happiness Trifecta. Your brain releases the hormone, oxytocin, which elevates your mood and combats the stress hormone, cortisol. Dopamine and serotonin increase as your oxytocin increases. The higher your oxytocin goes, the more you want to help others. Therefore, the more you help others, the higher your oxytocin goes.

It’s a happiness-producing, stress-reducing cycle!

Volunteering Reduces Stress

Volunteering also benefits your mental health by reducing your stress level. One way your stress reduces is simply by distraction and taking the focus off yourself. When you serve others, it can also adjust your perspective and increase your sense of gratitude, another great stress-reducer. It’s hard to focus on the stressors in your life when serving others.

Volunteering also reduces stress levels through your interactions with others, creating positive physical effects on your body, similar to the Happiness Trifecta. Susan Pinker, psychologist and author of The Village Effect, believes face-to-face interaction with others is so good for your mental and physical health that she even compares it to receiving a vaccine.

She states: “Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters and, like a vaccine, they protect you now, in the present, and well into the future.” She continues on to explain how the release of oxytocin increases your trust levels, lowers your cortisol level, and reduces your stress as a result.

Volunteering Is Fun

It’s easy to think about volunteering as only serious business, but it doesn’t have to be. Yes, volunteering with the court system for abused children is more serious than getting a group of friends together to host a shower for a local shelter. But, when you’re passionate about the cause you are donating your time to, it can feel fun, even if it doesn’t look like a typical appearance of fun because it’s so fulfilling for you.

Fun isn’t only for children; it’s vital for your mental health, too. When you volunteer, you escape the routines of life, develop new relationships, and experience the fun of fulfilling your passion and helping your community.

Mental health benefits of having fun include:

  • Better brain function
  • Reduced stress
  • Increases problem-solving skills
  • Promotes imagination
  • Enhances relationships
  • Boosts energy levels

You may recognize some overlapping patterns as we discussed the positive mental health benefits of volunteering. It appears that the famous Chinese proverb is backed by modern science: A giant leap towards happiness is indeed to help somebody.

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