Make a Difference Day aims to make us think about how we can give back to our local community. What part we could play in brightening the lives of other around us or contributing to positive changes in our area. Volunteering can be a life-line to some and to community projects the only way they will survive. The best thing about volunteering is it costs nothing – your time is often all that is needed to make a significant and lasting difference. And even more wonderful is the fact that while you are giving, you will also be reaping the rewards of your labours as scientists have found tremendous health benefits to those who volunteer.
You know that warm fuzzy feeling you get when someone does a kind thing for you or gives you a present? Well the chemicals which are released by your body when you are the one doing giving are the same. That’s because when we give, our body releases the same feel-good chemicals into our bloodstream as when we are treated to a lovely gift ourselves.
Dopamine, a neurotransmitter which is sometimes nicknamed the ‘reward chemical’, is released when you achieve a goal, win a game or do well at something. It’s also released when you do something kind for someone. It’s been found volunteers get a release of dopamine when they are helping others and even just planning their intended good work can bring on a dopamine high! The reaction of the person you have helped and support of other volunteers in achieving a goal can also boost your serotonin production. Serotonin is perhaps the most widely known happiness chemical because antidepressant medication primarily addresses its production. But as researchers at the London School of Economics found, people become happier by volunteering more and gaining that personal sense of accomplishment.
As well as making us happy in the moment, volunteering could active decrease your risk of depression. This is because of a range of reasons aside from the happy chemical boosts it can give. Volunteering tends to increase social interaction with a wide range of like-minded people. It builds a support system based on common commitment and interests which researchers have found work together to reduce depression likelihood. It also builds a support network and safety net around you from others in the community, so you feel if times are tough there are people who you can turn to and a group of people you know to be kind and caring. With a larger social network, you are also likely to have more resources at your fingertips, which leads to better physical, mental and emotional health.
Any acts of kindness give you a sense of purpose – leading to higher self-esteem and also a higher satisfaction in life. We have a great feeling of control, that we can make things better and that there are others out there who care enough to help. We also feel more satisfied and grateful for what we have and are more likely to appreciate what we have in our own lives.
Volunteering helps your brain function
When we volunteer, we often use our brain in a different way from when we are at work or home. It might be that we are solving problems when that’s not part of our role in the office. We are listening to people and could also be tutoring them in something which is a passion but otherwise not part of our daily life. As well as learning transferable skills by volunteering, we also get to enliven our brains and get them working a little differently than our normal routines require.
Long-term this has fantastic health benefits for our brain. One *study involving more than 64,000 people age 60 and up from 1998 to 2010 found that volunteering can enhance cognition. Individuals who volunteered 100 hours a year scored about 6 percent higher in cognitive testing, on average than non-volunteers.
The combination of getting out into the community and the ‘thinking’ demands of volunteering can be the perfect blend. A John Hopkins University study found in 2009 revealed that volunteers actually increased their brain functioning.
Can you believe that if you want to live a long and active life then volunteering could help you achieve that goal in the same way as diet and exercise? A 2012 study published in Health Psychology found participants who regularly volunteered lived longer. The only snag was that those who were volunteering needed to be doing it for the good of other, not to make themselves feel better!
But the evidence for volunteering as a health move is certainly great. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, **discovered adults over age 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers. The reduction in blood pressure is significant as high blood pressure contributes to heart disease, stroke, and premature death. It’s thought that the physical activity of volunteering could help those who are less inclined to get out-and-about and the emotional benefits of volunteering reduce stress which itself is linked to positive health outcomes.
And you don’t need to be older to gain physical health benefits from volunteering. Unitedhealthcare and VolunteerMatch studied 2,705 volunteers age 18 and older and found that 75 percent of those who volunteered in the past year said it made them feel “physically healthier”. More than one-third also noted it helped them to better manage their chronic illnesses, compared to those who have not volunteered in the past 12 months.
So how much time do you have to give to volunteering to reap the benefits? While you need to work out how much time in your week you can free up, many of the research studies into volunteering suggest two-and-a-half hours a week is a good level to increase your mental and physical health. In the Carnegie Mellon study, 200 hours of volunteering per year correlated to lower blood pressure but other studies have found a health benefit from as little as 100 hours of volunteering a year.
Finding something you enjoy, a group with a similar passion to your own or even someone who would appreciate you as a mentor are all good places to start when working out how to volunteer. Just remember, giving makes us happier than receiving so being selfless is a little selfish too – in the best possible way!