How volunteering can improve your health
Updated: Jan 28
Volunteering helps the community, but it has a positive impact on your wellbeing, too.
Volunteering is a foundational element of a strong community. It allows us to enhance the lives of those around us and work towards common goals. It empowers individuals to help one another, resulting in inclusive, resilient and thriving communities.
But volunteering doesn't always need to be a large commitment - small gestures are just as beneficial. Recently, a friend of mine offered to do a load of laundry for me when my washing machine broke down. This selfless gesture of volunteering her assistance left us both feeling great. By supporting a friend in need, our connection was strengthened and I felt a greater sense of belonging and a reduction in stress.
Put simply, volunteering allows us to positively channel our time and energy into big or small projects that can make a real difference to the lives of others, giving us all a greater sense of purpose.
It improves your sense of achievement
Working towards a goal is a key aspect of mental wellbeing. It elevates your sense of motivation and purpose and when you achieve a goal, your feelings of accomplishment and self-efficacy skyrocket.
For example, each year my husband's and my charity project Finnan's Gift sets a new goal to achieve. Although there are several events and different groups fundraising throughout the year, we all feel united as we work towards a common goal.
The positive feelings don't just flow when we reach that goal, though; they also stem from being part of a community working for the greater good. When you've set yourself a target to reach, you're in "can-do" mode and taking action. You build momentum with others and can make an even bigger collective difference to the world.
It strengthens your connections
Volunteering provides us with opportunities for higher-quality connections, and it's a powerful way to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation. Loneliness doesn't discriminate, and it's shaping up to be one of the biggest issues of the 21st century. Although we can experience a lot of connectedness in our day-to-day lives via technology, these interactions can sometimes be fleeting or lack quality and substance.
A recent Lifeline survey showed about 60% of Australians 'often feel lonely', and isolation can affect not just our mental health, but our physical health also. By engaging in volunteer work - whether it be a small gesture like helping a friend with laundry or joining a charitable fundraising activity - you automatically strengthen your connections with those around you.
The physical benefits
As well as helping your mental wellbeing, volunteering can have surprising benefits for your physical health too. An American study by Dr Stephen Post from the Stony Brook University School of Medicine surveyed 4,500 respondents and found that volunteering has a dramatic impact on various aspects of health. Of this group, 68 per cent of volunteers agreed that volunteering had made them feel physically healthier, and 96 per cent said it had made them happier.
In addition, the survey results indicated that volunteers have less trouble sleeping, less anxiety, and better friendships and social networks. Another researcher discovered that volunteering can help to reduce stress, which - as we're finding out - is closely linked to overall health outcomes.
It helps build empathy and resilience
The Greater Goods Science Centre at UC Berkeley, one of the leading centres of expertise in resilience, says empathy can be the catalyst for significant social change. It's also a key ingredient of successful relationships because it helps us understand the respective needs and intentions of others.
Donating your time to help someone else gives you the chance to practise empathy while improving your own resilience. It gives you a look into other people's lives and circumstances, which widens your perspective and increases your likelihood of feeling compassion without judgement.
Volunteering also gives you greater visibility of how others overcome challenges, including what resources they might draw upon, which can only increase your own ability to problem solve and more effectively 'bounce forward' in life.
Volunteering however you can
The true spirit of volunteering is about helping others in whatever way you can.
You don't need to be the organiser or project leader, or even take on a massive commitment to volunteer. Simply offering your time and energy to a friend, colleague or even a stranger can be just as powerful. Look for small ways to help others, like opening the door for a mother with a pram, helping someone carry their groceries or perhaps making a meal for someone who is sick.
If you do want to get involved in a larger community-based project, consider joining an existing group or project. The Red Cross, for example, provides lots of ways for people to get positively involved.
Get what you give
Modern society tends to celebrate independence. Often, I feel like I'm expected to be a super hero working mother while coping with everything with a smile, which can sometimes make it hard to accept help when it's offered. But this insistence of independence can take away from our ability to help one another, which degrades our opportunities to build a stronger more tight-knit community.
We need to appreciate that accepting help isn't failure. It's actually what helps a community to thrive.
If we can recognise that supporting one another is just as powerful for the giver as it is for the receiver, then perhaps we'll all be a little more inclined to give volunteering a go or to accept help when it's next offered. Seriously, one load of laundry can make a huge difference!
In 2011, my husband and I lost our 10-day old son Finnan to Congenital Heart Disease. We created a charity project in his honour, and each year we fundraise to buy cutting edge equipment, to support advanced training or world class research for the Cardiac Department at the Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne.
In putting Finnan's Gift together, we unknowingly created a great opportunity for other people in our lives to volunteer. We were going through a time of serious grief, and people wanted to help us and show empathy for our situation, but they didn't know how. When we created Finnan's Gift, it actually enabled them to find a way to connect and help us.
7 years later, one of our favourite things about Finnan's Gift is the community it has created. It's made up of families like us, as well as colleagues, businesses, patients, doctors and new friends. Each year, we hold an annual ball and we also have a team who participate in the Melbourne Marathon Festival. Not only are all these special people coming together to work on their physical health for a common goal, but they're also fundraising within their own personal communities and spreading the message of why they're doing it.
The charity is a fantastic enabler that has given us an opportunity to say thank you, to stay connected to our community, and to help other babies and their families have a greater chance of enjoying a quality life.
Originally published on www.onelife.aiavitality.com.au on May 22, 2018.
Alisa Camplin is an Olympic Gold Medalist, in-demand Keynote Speaker, Corporate Ambassador, and Human Performance Consultant who delivers results-driven Resilience and Human Performance Training and Development Programs. Connect with Alisa.