Volunteering can not only strengthen your community but boost your mental well-being by the equivalent of $1,100

The coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic has led to the prac­tice of social dis­tanc­ing, cre­at­ing feel­ings of stress and iso­la­tion in many of us. Some groups have been hit par­tic­u­lar­ly hard, includ­ing the elder­ly, par­ents jug­gling work and child care, and peo­ple who have lost their jobs. Against this back­drop, many peo­ple have turned to vol­un­teer­ing to help make a dif­fer­ence, even at a distance.

New research sug­gests that vol­un­teers aren’t just help­ing the com­mu­ni­ties they serve. Peo­ple who vol­un­teer actu­al­ly expe­ri­ence a boost in their men­tal health—good news at a time when more than a third of Amer­i­cans are expe­ri­enc­ing symp­toms of anx­i­ety or depression.

In a study pub­lished this year in the Jour­nal of Hap­pi­ness Stud­ies, researchers exam­ined data from near­ly 70,000 research par­tic­i­pants in the Unit­ed King­dom, who received sur­veys about their vol­un­teer­ing habits and their men­tal health, includ­ing their dis­tress and func­tion­ing in every­day life, every two years from 1996 to 2014.

Com­pared to peo­ple who didn’t vol­un­teer, peo­ple who had vol­un­teered in the past year were more sat­is­fied with their lives and rat­ed their over­all health as bet­ter. Addi­tion­al­ly, the researchers found that peo­ple who vol­un­teered more fre­quent­ly expe­ri­enced greater ben­e­fits: Those who vol­un­teered at least once a month report­ed bet­ter men­tal health than par­tic­i­pants who vol­un­teered infre­quent­ly or not at all.

But does vol­un­teer­ing make peo­ple hap­py, or are hap­py peo­ple sim­ply more like­ly to vol­un­teer? The researchers found the same results even when they account­ed for par­tic­i­pants’ ini­tial lev­els of well-being before they start­ed vol­un­teer­ing. In oth­er words, peo­ple who start­ed to vol­un­teer became hap­pi­er over time.

Although it’s true that peo­ple who are hap­pi­er do tend to spend more time vol­un­teer­ing, the cur­rent study sug­gests that you don’t need to already feel hap­py in order to ben­e­fit from it. In fact, some research sug­gests that peo­ple who start out with low­er lev­els of well-being may even get a big­ger boost from volunteering.

To get a sense of how large the ben­e­fits of vol­un­teer­ing were, the researchers com­pared it to the effects of people’s income. They found that, for a par­tic­i­pant earn­ing an aver­age mid­dle-class salary, vol­un­teer­ing was essen­tial­ly “worth” approx­i­mate­ly $1,100 per year: that is, vol­un­teer­ing would make some­one as hap­py as hav­ing an extra $1,100.

Why does vol­un­teer­ing sup­port our men­tal health? Accord­ing to Ricky Law­ton, asso­ciate direc­tor at Simet­ri­ca Research Con­sul­tan­cy and lead author of the paper, a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors is like­ly at play. First, vol­un­teer­ing appears to be intrin­si­cal­ly rewarding—when we help oth­ers, we tend to expe­ri­ence what researchers call a “warm glow.” Sec­ond, vol­un­teer­ing is like­ly to help boost our sense of social con­nec­tion. In par­tic­u­lar, for old­er adults, vol­un­teer­ing can be a way to stay con­nect­ed to oth­ers after retirement.

Final­ly, vol­un­teer­ing can be a way to build pro­fes­sion­al skills and try out lead­er­ship oppor­tu­ni­ties, which is espe­cial­ly rel­e­vant to young adults. In the cur­rent study, the researchers found that par­tic­i­pants ages 16–24 and 55–74 were espe­cial­ly like­ly to ben­e­fit from vol­un­teer­ing, per­haps because of the oppor­tu­ni­ty to build social con­nec­tions and new skills.

Many non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tions are offer­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties to vol­un­teer remote­ly from home dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. While research hasn’t direct­ly com­pared this to tra­di­tion­al in-per­son vol­un­teer­ing, Law­ton sus­pects that remote vol­un­teer oppor­tu­ni­ties are like­ly to also ben­e­fit our well-being. So, if you’ve been feel­ing over­whelmed or out of sorts late­ly, vol­un­teer­ing can be a way to help bring you a sense of con­trol in a stress­ful situation—a hap­py side effect of the vital work vol­un­teers do.

Eliz­a­beth Hop­per, Ph.D., received her Ph.D. in psy­chol­o­gy from UC San­ta Bar­bara and cur­rent­ly works as a free­lance sci­ence writer spe­cial­iz­ing in psy­chol­o­gy and men­tal health. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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