Every day, millions of Americans dedicate their time and energy to people, pets and causes that need a helping hand. An estimated one in four Americans volunteers and a growing body of medical evidence suggests that their efforts may reap some surprising benefits. If you can join this admirable group, your effort will not only help make the world a better place, it will also create a happier and healthier you.
Studies have shown that volunteering is good for mind, body and soul. Now, a new systematic review analyzing the results of 40 studies says that giving your time to others could add years to your life. People who volunteer have a 22% decreased mortality risk over the following five to seven years compared to people who do not volunteer. And, a recent UnitedHealth Group survey shows that people who volunteer feel physically healthier than their non-volunteering counterparts. Even people who volunteer just a little less than two hours a week reap significant benefits.
Volunteers are not just healthier – they are also happier. Volunteers report lower rates of depression and increased satisfaction with life compared to people who do not volunteer. In the UnitedHealth Group survey, 78% of people reported that donating their time reduced stress. Volunteering may even help people overcome particularly difficult patches; in one study, people mourning the loss of a spouse experienced shorter periods of sadness if they volunteered. Volunteering helps to reduce social isolation and keeps both mind and body active.
I can personally vouch for the vitalizing effects of volunteering. Spending time volunteering in free clinics is one of my favorite ways to both give back and recharge myself. At these events, every patient I see and student I teach reminds me about why I went into medicine. Without fail, I leave each event more energized than when I went in.
With so many reasons to love volunteering, it shouldn’t feel like a chore. The review found that if people did not feel like they were getting anything back from volunteering, simply going through the act didn’t improve their quality of life. Volunteering too much, the researchers argue, could cause burnout and make it feel more like a burden than a pleasure. So if you find your excitement waning, try cutting back a little or switching to a new valuable cause.
Volunteering is approved for everyone. No matter what your limitations are, there is a volunteering position out there for you. First, think about what matters to you most. Then, think about what skills you have to offer – do you like to read, write, teach, advocate, run, plant, save animals, cook, clean, craft or build? Once you find your passion, don’t be shy – reach out to organizations that inspire you and ask how you can help. Be prepared in case they want you to interview.
Volunteering can also be a great opportunity for you to socialize and bond with friends and family, so gather up a group and get going. It’s a great way to spend time with the people you care about most.