Every January, many people resolve to focus on their health. Often, these resolutions include strict diets and aggressive exercise plans, making them difficult to keep to. Resolving to volunteer more, however, can be more attainable, long-term, and still hit the resolution of getting (and staying) both mentally and physically healthy.
Learn how volunteering can help your health, and how our partners at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin gave their patients a boost with a kit-packing community event.
Volunteering helps to improve physical and mental health.
Often, light activities (such as kit-packing or packing diapers through the Diaper Bank) keep people moving and thinking at the same time. According to the Mayo Clinic in August 2023, volunteers have reported that they feel in better physical health than those who don’t volunteer. For people 65 or older, volunteering leads to lower rates of depression and anxiety, which reduces the risk of some physical health problems such as heart disease, stroke, and other general illnesses. Bonus good news: people who volunteer have lower mortality rates than those who do not, even when controlling for age, gender, and physical health.
HelpGuide.org’s 2023 article about volunteering noted that researchers measured hormones and brain activity, and discovered that being helpful to others delivers deep happiness. Helping others activates the reward center in the brain and releases three “happy hormones:”
- Dopamine – the rewarding chemical that comes from completing a task, practicing self-care, and celebrating small wins. It’s released when we do something pleasurable, giving feelings of well-being and motivates us to seek things we enjoy and do well.
- Serotonin – the mood stabilizing chemical that comes from feelings of well-being and happiness. Additionally, it helps decrease our worries and concerns and is associated with learning and memory.
- Endorphins – the “pain killer” that comes from laughing and exercising. These primarily help us deal with stress and physical pain. While they’re typically released in response to stress or pain, they are also released during other, happier activities.
Because of these hormones released while volunteering, volunteers can feel a sense of meaning and appreciation, both given and received, which combats stress, anger, depression, and anxiety. That’s why many people often feel better after volunteering, with a deeper sense of purpose and meaning, which is supported by the Cleveland Clinic in 2022.
Volunteering helps nurture relationships and connects the community.
A 2020 study by the American Psychology Association noted that prosocial behavior – which includes altruism, cooperation, trust, and compassion – are necessary to have a well-functioning, harmonious society. This behavior contributes positively to mental and physical health.
Sarah Trost, PhD, Assistant Professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Pain Management Program, can attest. After reading about the effects that volunteering can have on health, she knew that she wanted to incorporate volunteering among patients. Around that same time the Medical College of Wisconsin, a longtime partner of United Way, was also sponsoring a United Way snack-packing event. This opened the door for Sarah to bring volunteering to patients in the SpineCare and Pain Management Program.
“A lot of patients want to volunteer but may not be able to because of health barriers,” Sarah said. “This opportunity to bring volunteering to them made sense.”
Working with United Way’s Volunteer Engagement, Sarah and her colleague Ross Grover, LCSW were able to put together their own snack-pack event and extend an invite to patients to attend on-site. Their enthusiastic participation was rewarding for everyone, and they saw many patients in the days after their community event who were glad to participate.
“The messages of encouragement were really meaningful,” Sarah said. “The patients understood where these words were coming from and what they mean, and they were very thoughtful about what they were saying.”
In addition to connecting with the community, volunteering can also help develop social skills and build friendships. One of the best ways to build a support system, make new friends, and strengthen existing relationships is to participate in a shared activity.
In many cases, volunteers have diverse backgrounds, but the volunteer event brings them together for a common interest. United Way’s Backpack Coalition, for instance, welcomes community members across our four counties who come together with the common interest of helping students succeed in school.
Volunteering helps build valuable skills in both social and career development.
Ultimately, when it comes to volunteering, passion and a positive attitude are the only requirements, allowing for a fun, easy way to explore interests and skills. The skills that are taught or used in volunteering can build upon other skills, which not only helps the community but also within a workplace whether someone is job hunting or expanding their career. Volunteers at events like book fairs can improve their public speaking and communication skills as they help children find the right books to add to their home library.
According to HelpGuide.org, older adults tend to experience greater increases in life satisfaction, confidence, and self-esteem. For those who are looking to re-enter the workplace, volunteering can be a great option as it provides an opportunity to try out a new career without having to make a long-term commitment.
No matter what your reason may be, volunteering can change your life. If you’re focusing on your health, your social interactions, or looking for new skills, volunteering can provide a fulfilling, rewarding experience that is like no other. Sarah, Ross and their colleagues at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin found a wonderful opportunity to volunteer and help benefit their patients’ health.
Whether you're looking for something as an individual, group, family, or workplace, we have the right volunteer opportunity for you. Check out our ongoing volunteer opportunities to add new experiences to your life, and together, we’ll Live United.
Interested in volunteering with United Way as an individual or as group?
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