Volunteer! For Them, For You, For The World

If neuroscience is right, the simple act of thinking and talking about volunteering could be the best overall mental health program for your workforce. Even better if the thinking turns to action. And it’s completely free.

Most workplaces recognize the incredible importance of employee mental health. And also the costs that can come with it. Most workplaces also recognize that volunteering is great for morale, team building, and brand building.

But what if volunteering were also the best thing for employee mental health?

Neuroscientists have identified more than two dozen ways we can improve our long term mental and brain health, and mostly by changing the way we think and behave. And most of these life and brain-changing benefits can be found in the simple act of volunteering.

Before you say it…

Volunteering reached an all-time low in America, even before Covid. But Covid should not be an excuse to postpone re-engaging employees in discussions around volunteering:

  • Remote volunteering, like mentoring or offering business or technical skills, can overcome any concerns about the health risks of in-person volunteering.
  • Even just talking and thinking about volunteering can trigger many of these benefits because it can take us away from our own worries and stressors and focus on helping others.
  • Talking and thinking about volunteering can trigger perspective, also great for our own mental health.
  • Talking about volunteering can help bring back a sense of normality, what life was like before Covid, which can also be great for mental health and emotional resilience.
  • Talking and thinking about volunteering can trigger all kinds of other “neuro kind” emotions including kindness and giving, meaning and purpose, priorities and perspective, and gratitude.

Even before Covid, mental illness and stress were at chronic levels across the world. The World Health Organization has described depression as one of the greatest health challenges for the human race. And the American Psychological Association has described stress as a national health crisis.

And even more encouraging, these changes in the brain, in the way we view the world and those around us, could make the world a better place too. Greater kindness, sympathy, empathy, patience, and compassion. A sense of selflessness and togetherness, of meaning and purpose, of priorities and perspectives. All these can be improved by improving our mental health.

 

Help The World. Change Your Mind. Change The World.

 

 

All the following are known, proven to improve mental and brain health. The more of them you do, the healthier and happier you get.

 

#1 MEANING AND PURPOSE

First, and maybe most important, volunteering can give you a sense of purpose and meaning, a why for life. And that’s known to be key to mental health, to happiness, and even longevity.

Studies have shown that people with purpose appear to have better cognitive function, greater longevity, healthier sleep, greater cardiovascular fitness, and improved mood. And it’s been shown to help ward of Alzheimer’s and dementia, and help reduce depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.

In a study by VolunteerHub, 96% of respondents reported that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life.

#2 KINDNESS AND GIVING

Volunteering is connected to kindness and giving, both of which are not only known to improve mental health and happiness, but even permanently rewire your brain for the better.

According to the Mayo Clinic, being kind produces very similar results to being grateful. Kindness boosts serotonin and dopamine, as well as endorphins and oxytocin. All four of the essential DOSE hormones.

The act of giving has been shown to activate regions in the brain associated with pleasure, with connection with other people, and with trust. Giving also triggers more of those “feel good” chemicals in our brains, such as serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine.

#3 EVEN BETTER THAN CLICKING ON A “DONATE NOW” BUTTON

Volunteering is a type of giving that often makes you think more, because you’re more involved than if you simply made a donation. And that brings additional mental and brain health benefits.

Thinking just on its own is known to help the brain grow in different and healthier ways, making it stronger.

How much stimulation do you think your brain can get – your eyes, your ears, your sense of smell, conversation, engagement, new faces, places, stories and circumstances – from regularly engaging in volunteering activities with complete strangers? Compare that to simply clicking on a donate button? It’s not even close.

As one neuroscientist put it – our brains are wired to be inspired. Inspired thinking and listening really does fire up the brain and change it permanently.

#4 A TRIGGER FOR GRATITUDE

Volunteering can make you grateful for what you have, and that’s also known to be great for mental health. Practicing gratitude, actively thinking about how grateful you should be, has been shown to help the brain for the better.

For example, the Gratitude Project at UCLA found that people who regularly practice gratitude enjoy higher levels of positive emotions, greater joy and pleasure, and greater optimism and happiness.

Other studies have shown that practicing gratitude, or even just being grateful, can help with depression, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, nicotine dependence, alcohol dependence, and drug abuse. It’s also been shown to enhance empathy, reduce aggression, and improve self-esteem.

According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, people who are generally more grateful showed greater neural sensitivity in an area of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with learning and decision making, and also for countering the amygdala’s urge to focus on stress.

#5 CRITICAL SOCIAL CONNECTIONS

Volunteering can help you create or grow your social network, forge new friends and friendships, all essential for mental health. For example, one of the leading types of anxiety is social anxiety, which can often make it difficult to make new friends – friends which ironically are essential in treating social anxiety. Volunteering could help short circuit that process.

Social connections and friendships are the central pillars for mental health and especially when dealing with depression and anxiety.

#6 THE COMPANY OF LIKE-MINDED PEOPLE

Volunteering can connect you with like-minded people, people who are like you, people you can relate to. Studies over the years have shown that we are hardwired from the time of the caves to be drawn to like-minded people. It used to be just about survival, because like-minded people work better together for the benefit of the group or tribe.

Recent research has found that the brain builds a sense of self from the people around us. Surround yourself with good people, and it can build or bring out the good in you. And yet other studies have shown that close friends eventually develop similar brain patterns.

#7 A SENSE OF POWER

Volunteering can make you happy and give you a sense of personal power from seeing the differences you can make in the lives of strangers. It’s often called the helper’s high, triggered by acts of giving and kindness, and can have powerful and long-term effects on the brain.

It can trigger endorphins, one of the four essential DOSE hormones or neurotransmitters, which in turn can reduce stress, depression and anxiety, and increase feelings of well-being and self-esteem.

#8 PART OF SOMETHING BIGGER

If your volunteering can make others better, and make you feel you’re helping to make the world a better place, it can instill the sense and pride of being part of something bigger, even something massive. That connects again to everything from meaning and purpose to a sense of belonging, self-worth and self-esteem.

#9 THE SPIRITUAL CONNECTION

Volunteering is often connected closely to values and spirituality. Both are recognized to be key to mental health. If your volunteering work is with a church or religious group, that can help trigger all the mental health benefits of tribe, meaning and purpose, common cause, greater good, self-esteem and self-worth and much more.

#10 LEARNING NEW SKILLS

If your volunteering involves learning new skills, that’s great for the brain too. Learning not only makes the brain healthier and stronger, but new skills could help make your life better too.

And learning is key to neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to grow new connections, and make itself stronger and more capable. The more complex the skill or task being learned, the greater the neuroplasticity.

#11 BUILD YOUR OWN SUPPORT NETWORK

Volunteering can return the favor, providing an essential support system if you ever need it.

Knowing there are people out there who now know you through your volunteering, and who are likely to be there if you need them, can also be great for mental health and for stress reduction. It’s not just about having more social connections, but it could mean a safety net when you need it too. And the calm and comfort of knowing that.

#12 SELF-ESTEEM AND SELF-WORTH

Volunteering can be great for self-esteem and a sense of self-worth. Low self-esteem is often connected to illnesses like anxiety and depression. Higher self-esteem can help reduce anxiety and boost self-confidence, and self-confidence can help trigger positive mood chemicals in the brain.

#13 A SENSE OF PLACE AND BELONGING

Volunteering can connect you to your local community and give you a greater sense of place and belonging. And the notion of belonging is great for mental health and especially when dealing with or warding off things like anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

#14 A SEPARATION FROM STRESSORS

Volunteering can take you out of yourself, away from your own worries and stressors, take you into a different environment, and give your brain a break from its own worries.

#15 IT COULD GET YOU OUTSIDE

If volunteering takes you out in the sunshine, the fresh air, with pets and animals, that’s all great for mental health too. The brain loves things like vitamin D, the nitric oxide generated by sun on skin, and of course lots of oxygen. And lots of great science to show that even just the sounds of birds singing can make the brain happier and healthier.

#16 IT CAN BE INFECTIOUS

If others see the rewards that you’re getting from volunteering, it could entice family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers to join in and do the same. Your single act of kindness could transform into a bigger movement and trigger feelings of positive pride, self-esteem, and self-worth knowing you might have initiated that.

#17 IT’S GREAT FOR PERSPECTIVE

Volunteering can not only give you perspective, a view into the lives of others that perhaps encourages you to reflect more on yours, but can expose you to other perspectives, experiences, and points of view, which can be therapeutic, healing, and bonding.

#18 A CURE FOR LONELINESS

Loneliness is not just very often a byproduct of mental illnesses and especially anxiety and depression, but loneliness can help trigger mental illnesses. If volunteering helps you make new friends, that can be a powerful ally against the dangers of loneliness and isolation.

#19 A FORM OF TALK THERAPY

Volunteering can be a great and free form of talk therapy. Again, if the type of volunteering you choose involves you meeting and connecting with new people, even making new friends, and especially if you share similar stories or backgrounds, simply having someone new and sympathetic to talk to can be very therapeutic.

#20 PHYSICAL BENEFITS TOO

If the type of volunteering you choose involves physical movement or effort, or exercise, that’s great for brain health too.

Exercise is great for stimulating the brain and neuroplasticity, and for taming the toxic effects of stress-generated cortisol. It can help bring more oxygen to the brain and help improve the immune system and reduce inflammation

And again, if the work is outside in the fresh air and the sunshine, that’s great for brain health because it can mean oxygen, vitamin D and nitric oxide, all essential for brain health.

#21 A GREAT STRESS RELIEVER

And volunteering can be a great stress reliever. All that kindness and giving and camaraderie and self-esteem can trigger all the good chemicals in the brain and tame the destructive effects of stress-generated cortisol.

 

So, knowing all that, where do you start? These might help.

BE A LITTLE SELFISH

Don’t be afraid to be selfish. There are plenty of opportunities to choose from. Don’t be afraid to pick one that you think might suit you and your circumstances best. You’re still giving, you’re still lending a hand.

But it’s important to choose something that you know you’re going to enjoy doing and that you’ll be able to do often. The more you enjoy it, the easier it becomes to do it often, and the less likely you are to quit.

Think for a moment what you would like to get out of it too. Would you prefer to work with the homeless, or the elderly? With disaster relief, with animal rescue? With vulnerable kids? Again, the more relevant and personal the type of volunteering is to you, the more you’ll do it, the more you’ll benefit, and the more others will benefit too.

DON’T DO IT ALONE

Volunteering always works best when done with a group of people. Whether that’s people you know, from family, the neighborhood, work, or even strangers, volunteering in groups can give you more courage, encouragement, and peer support.

This group can motivate and encourage you if you’re lacking either. They can take your place if you get exhausted so that you don’t end up quitting. And of course they offer an additional payoff of all that social oxytocin.

YOUR SKILLS CAN BE JUST AS VALUABLE AS YOUR PRESENCE

Serving knowledge could be even more important than serving hot meals. If you have skills to share, you could pass those skills on to someone who can then use them to sustain themselves independently for the rest of their lives.

So it doesn’t always have to be in person, on location. Even just letting someone know that you’re there if they need you. Texting them every day, doing a Zoom, What’sApp, or Facetime call once a week. For many, it’s the smallest things that make the biggest difference.

REST, JUST DON’T QUIT

If you get tired, emotionally or physically, and both are very common, don’t quit. Take a rest, a time out. Whether it’s for a day a week or a month, the best thing you can do for yourself and everyone else is to be in it for the long haul. So you have to pace yourself.

IT’S OK TO INVENT A PURPOSE

If you don’t have a purpose, a meaning for life, there’s nothing wrong with creating one. Purpose and meaning don’t always come naturally. Sometimes you have to look hard for the things that will give you purpose.

If you’re looking for that purpose, try the principles of Ikegai. Imagine 4 interconnecting circles – identify what you’re good at, what you like doing so you’ll do it as often as possible, what others need, and what will reward you personally. And of course in this case that reward is emotional, the kind of reward that comes that from Satisfaction, the Helper’s High, a sense of self-esteem and self worth.

IT’S OK TO MAKE A PLAN

You could even think about creating a plan. List all the volunteering opportunities that interest you, how much time do you think you can devote each week or each month, whether you prefer in person or remote, how far you’re prepared to travel, all the different skills and resources you think you can bring, anyone else you think might be interested in joining you and so on.

That simple process of thinking and writing should not only make it easier, but guess what? Their both great for brain health too.

BE KIND TO YOURSELF TOO

Don’t forget to be kind to yourself. Not only because self-kindness and self-compassion are so important for mental health, but it could be a very important way to help you cope, to decompress.

As part of your volunteering, you may be exposed to lives, people, predicaments and situations, stories and life events, that could have a significant emotional impact on you.

To make sure those emotions don’t consume you, or deter you, you need to develop ways to process them. And that shouldn’t be seen as a burden, because in doing so you’re also learning new skills that your mind and brain will be very grateful for.

Not Ready To Volunteer?

Even if now is not the best time for stressed and exhausted employees to be planning to volunteer, it might be the best time and opportunity for them to be talking and thinking about it.

Although the need for volunteering has never been greater, even just simply talking and thinking about it can help to spark the incredibly powerful mental health benefits of gratitude, empathy, perspective, meaning and purpose and so much more.

Talking about volunteering, about helping others, helps to ground us, to think about the bigger picture, about the “small self,” about what’s really important.

It can provide a sense of normality that’s been missing for so long. It can help to remind employees that things will eventually, hopefully even soon, be back to normal. All of which are great for mental health.

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Looking for volunteering opportunities? There are lots of great organizations that will help you find just the right opportunity for you. Check them out.

VolunteerMatch

VolunteerMatch is one of the largest nonprofit networks in the world with the most nonprofits and volunteer opportunities.

Points Of Light

Points of Light has more than 5 million volunteers helping in more than 38 countries.

AmeriCorps

AmeriCorps is the federal agency for volunteerism and national service and has millions of volunteers.