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.