How Volunteering Can Help Your Mental Health

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The coronavirus pandemic has led to the practice of social distancing, creating feelings of stress and isolation in many of us. Some groups have been hit particularly hard, including the elderly, parents juggling work and child care, and people who have lost their jobs. Against this backdrop, many people have turned to volunteering to help make a difference, even at a distance.

New research suggests that volunteers aren’t just helping the communities they serve. People who volunteer actually experience a boost in their mental health—good news at a time when more than a third of Americans are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression.

In a study published this year in the Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers examined data from nearly 70,000 research participants in the United Kingdom, who received surveys about their volunteering habits and their mental health, including their distress and functioning in everyday life, every two years from 1996 to 2014.

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Compared to people who didn’t volunteer, people who had volunteered in the past year were more satisfied with their lives and rated their overall health as better. Additionally, the researchers found that people who volunteered more frequently experienced greater benefits: Those who volunteered at least once a month reported better mental health than participants who volunteered infrequently or not at all.

But does volunteering make people happy, or are happy people simply more likely to volunteer? The researchers found the same results even when they accounted for participants’ initial levels of well-being before they started volunteering. In other words, people who started to volunteer became happier over time.

Although it’s true that people who are happier do tend to spend more time volunteering, the current study suggests that you don’t need to already feel happy in order to benefit from it. In fact, some research suggests that people who start out with lower levels of well-being may even get a bigger boost from volunteering.

To get a sense of how large the benefits of volunteering were, the researchers compared it to the effects of people’s income. They found that, for a participant earning an average middle-class salary, volunteering was essentially “worth” approximately $1,100 per year: that is, volunteering would make someone as happy as having an extra $1,100.

Why does volunteering support our mental health? According to Ricky Lawton, associate director at Simetrica Research Consultancy and lead author of the paper, a combination of factors is likely at play. First, volunteering appears to be intrinsically rewarding—when we help others, we tend to experience what researchers call a “warm glow.” Second, volunteering is likely to help boost our sense of social connection. In particular, for older adults, volunteering can be a way to stay connected to others after retirement.

Finally, volunteering can be a way to build professional skills and try out leadership opportunities, which is especially relevant to young adults. In the current study, the researchers found that participants ages 16-24 and 55-74 were especially likely to benefit from volunteering, perhaps because of the opportunity to build social connections and new skills.

Many nonprofit organizations are offering opportunities to volunteer remotely from home during the pandemic. While research hasn’t directly compared this to traditional in-person volunteering, Lawton suspects that remote volunteer opportunities are likely to also benefit our well-being. So, if you’ve been feeling overwhelmed or out of sorts lately, volunteering can be a way to help bring you a sense of control in a stressful situation—a happy side effect of the vital work volunteers do.

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