Volunteering gives a sense of purpose and belonging (community), and that's good for mental health: somehow, you sensed it without needing confirmation from studies, surveys, and science.
There are health benefits of volunteering beyond emotional and psychological well-being. Regardless of the type of work you perform, volunteering impacts your physical health. For example, a study by Carnegie Mellon University showed that volunteering could decrease the risk of hypertension or high blood pressure in older adults: 200 hours of volunteer work per year may lower the risk of hypertension by 40%:
"Participating in volunteer activities may provide older adults with social connections that they might not have otherwise. There is strong evidence that having good social connections promotes healthy aging and reduces the risk for a number of negative health outcomes," said Rodlescia S. Sneed, the author of the study, in a statement.
But you don't have to be an elderly volunteer to enjoy the health benefits of volunteering.
Without further ado, here are the main benefits of volunteering for body and mind:
Ward Off Loneliness and Depression
Volunteering is usually a social activity that involves communication, networking, team building, and other forms of human interaction designed to form the core of a functional society. Volunteers get to meet like-minded peers, who, in turn, give them a sense of belonging. Community and connectedness are factors that lower the feeling of loneliness, leading to reduced levels of anxiety or depression.
Volunteers dedicate their time to do good regardless of scenarios where things are already wrong. They have hope and believe in a better future. Hope is one of the attributes of positive thinking, together with mindfulness, gratitude, and resilience.
Positive thinking is not necessarily optimism. Nevertheless, hope, mindfulness, gratitude, and resilience are traits shared by all decent human beings. Even pessimists can be volunteers:
“A pessimist, they say, sees a glass of water as being half empty; an optimist sees the same glass as half full. But a giving person sees a glass of water and starts looking for someone who might be thirsty.” ~ G. Donald Gale
When it comes to volunteerism, positive thinking is both a mindset and an outcome with vital health benefits for the volunteer.
A positive outcome is a boost of happiness when the volunteers see that their efforts are not wasted—for example, volunteering in an animal shelter and seeing animals getting adopted by loving families.
Getting praised and/or rewarded by supervisors or program managers is another positive outcome with impactful effects on the mental health of the volunteers.
Positive thinking is a force for significant health benefits, according to the world-famous Mayo Clinic:
increased life span;
resistance to illnesses (for example, respiratory illnesses);
better cardiovascular health;
reduced risk of death from stroke;
reduced risk of death from cancer, etc.
There's also science backing the idea that collective participation in projects can have positive emotional consequences.
Less Stress and More Purpose
Volunteering has altruistic and egoistic motivations, and delimitating the two is a complex exercise in psychology. However, regardless of their reasons, volunteers positively contribute to the cause they serve, which gives them a strong sense of purpose.
Purpose, followed by appreciation from those who supervised the project and the community they serve, gives volunteers a sense of accomplishment, which is a stress reliever.
In essence, participating in worthy causes and social interactions help volunteers escape self-stigma and set their own struggles and worries aside for a while. Instead, they get to embark on a journey of self-discovery that brings a sense of fulfillment and meaning.
Increased Physical Activity
Many volunteer jobs require participants to be very active physically. Activities range from hosting a dance class to planting a tree or even building a house like the volunteers for Habitat for Humanity do. In addition, the simple act of handing out flyers can be a strenuous physical activity because it requires the volunteer to stand up for lengthy periods or walk more than usual.
No matter the physical exertion these activities demand, they are certainly not part of a fitness routine. Instead, they will impact the participants' physical health: volunteers, especially environmental volunteers, are reportedly fitter than non-volunteers due to "increased exposure to nature because outdoor activities such as clearing trails, testing streams, cleaning up nature preserves, and similar activities."
Through engagement with worthy causes, volunteers gain a new sense of self-worth and self-esteem that will positively impact their mental health. In addition, their involvement in environmental and humanitarian causes may increase their physical activity levels, making them fitter than non-volunteers.
Volunteers may be or not be aware of these health benefits, but that doesn't make them less valid. So, next time you want to attract volunteers, consider mentioning a few. Or, if you are still undecided about volunteering, here are some more reasons why you should do it.