Volunteering; why it’s not just others that benefit

18 Jun

Compassion and kindness are key ingredients for happiness.  It leads us to want to do good without expecting anything in return, to look after each other and our environment.   

When I hit 30 I was unfulfilled and unhappy, despite having every material I could ever have wished for.  I had a good upbringing, climbed the corporate ladders, earned good money, had a company car and a house by the beach so why was I unhappy?  At this point I set off on a journey that lead to understanding there was another way, the path to happiness and how to create a life we love.  I discovered what I valued, how to balance life, learned a new relationship with money and rediscovered what mattered. During this journey which I wrote about in my first book A Rough Guide to a Smooth Life I discovered my authenticity, made life more simple and rebuilt my life around my passions to find meaning and purpose.  Part of this involved quitting the corporate world and volunteering overseas.  I trained to be a yoga teacher, practiced mindfulness daily and did my life coaching certificate.  I now write books and run my own business and still enjoy volunteering.  In celebration of volunteer week I’d like to share why it’s so important as well as give thanks and gratitude to all those volunteers out there who give their time to good causes.

Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh said “The word compassion is a verb”.  Just think back to the last time you performed the action of helping someone in need.  How good did you feel?  Buddhists have a saying; “All the happiness there is in the world comes from us wishing others to be happy.” 

Our natural response to seeing someone in distress is the impulse to help, we care about the suffering of others and we feel good when that suffering is released.  This applies if we do it ourselves, see it in a movie or witness it in real life.  It makes us feel good.  Feeling like we’re making a difference in the world and helping those who need it brings us joy, it gives us meaning 

James Baraz quotes statistics on why giving is good for you in his book; ‘Awakening Joy’.  “According to the measures of Social Capital Community Benchmark survey those who gave contributions of time or money were 42% more likely to be happy than those who didn’t.  Psychologists even have a term for the state of euphoria reported by those who give, it’s called ‘helpers high’ and is based on the theory that neuroscience is now backing up; giving produces endorphins in the brain that make us feel good, this activates the same part of the brain as receiving rewards or experiencing pleasure does”.

You may say, that’s easy if you’re happy, have money and the time to help.  But when you’re busy, worried and burned out it’s not so easy to find the space in your heart or mind to be compassionate.  Yes, it does make it harder but not impossible and can in fact be the opening to more joy in your life at a time when you need it most. 

I must admit that when I’m working full time and trying to run my own business I don’t get the time I’d like to volunteer but when I have periods between contracts and can focus on one job I make sure it incorporate a day to volunteer.  Not only does it give me a break from writing it gets me out mixing with others and that feeling of contributing to the community, being of service and doing some good for others. 

It’s not just for others though, it’s good for our souls, our sense of meaning and purpose, learning new things, social connection. All the things that are fundamental to our health and happiness.  It helps us think more positively about the world and our own contribution to it too.

It’s the voluntary work I’ve done over the years that I’ve enjoyed most above any paid job, no matter what the salary or benefits.  I spent time in Thailand teaching English to Buddhist monks, worked at yoga ashrams and Buddhist centres as well as doing the soup run for the homeless and volunteering to teach IT to the over 50’s and coordinate activities at elderly day care centres. I enjoy the company and get a sense of satisfaction from this work.

Studies are also showing there are physical health benefits of compassion and giving through the form of voluntary work.  United Health Group commissioned a national survey of 3,351 adults and found that the overwhelming majority of participants reported feeling mentally and physically healthier after a volunteer experience.

·         76 percent of people who volunteered in the last twelve months said that volunteering has made them feel healthier

·         94 percent of people who volunteered in the last twelve months said that volunteering improved their mood

·         78 percent of them said that volunteering lowered their stress levels

·         96 percent reported that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life

·         Volunteering also improved their self-esteem

Researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School in England analyzed data from 40 published studies and found evidence that volunteers had a 20 percent lower risk of death than their peers who do not volunteer. The study also found that volunteers had lower levels of depression, increased life satisfaction and enhanced well-being. 

It doesn’t have to be money, it doesn’t have to be a lot of time if you’re short on that.  It can even be as simple as starting with some random acts of kindness throughout your day.  When we think of giving we often think of charitable donations but it doesn’t have to involve money.  Donating items to charity collections, baking cakes for local events, helping out at a local animal shelter or using some of your skills to help others are all forms of giving.  Giving is not always about your time or money.  We all have skills and strengths we can share with others, we can all choose to be compassionate.  Even if we have very little material wealth, we all have infinite non material wealth we can share.

Take the project ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ for example.  They have many ideas of acts of kindness we can perform for complete strangers and at the same time encourage those who have been the recipient of an act of kindness to pass it on and do something kind for someone else.  This can be as simple as helping an elderly neighbor with their shopping, paying the toll fee for the car behind you, holding the door open for a stranger or making coffee for a busy colleague. 

It doesn’t have to be hard or take up a lot of time, there are so many ways to help and by doing so we’re not just helping the recipients we’re helping ourselves too.  In a world where we’re increasing too busy for kindness see if you can make space to volunteer yourself in some capacity – your health and happiness will thank you.

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