Photo by the European Commission DG Echo
A STATISTIC MAKING ITS WAY around the internet is that people who volunteer have a 20% lower mortality rate than non-volunteers. As wonderful as this sounds it’s hard not to question if volunteering is actually the cause behind this finding. As we all know correlation does not prove causation, meaning it might be a bit early to start making claims supporting volunteering’s link to longevity.
However, what I have experienced firsthand is that volunteering does increase happiness. It makes sense, the key components involved in volunteering are ones that psychologists have time and time again identified as essential factors to boosting your mood.
Here are five ways that volunteering will make you a happier person.
Your social world will expand.
“Other people are the key to our happiness” says Psychology Today. It’s one of the most common happiness tricks in the book, the more time you spend connecting with others the happier you become.
In Tanzania I spent time on a micro-loan project. The beginning of the day was centered around tracking the women’s financial statistics, and the rest of the time was spent chatting. We exchanged recipes (guacamole for chicken wakizaza), we practiced ‘courting’ dances (if only it was that simple), and we braided each other’s hair as we discussed the universal feeling of heartbreak.
Volunteering naturally increases a person’s daily social interactions and thus happiness. While volunteering you will be swept up in a sea of other individuals from community members to fellow volunteers. Friendship, conversation, and connection are all inevitable. Instant happiness booster.
Doing things for others will make you feel better.
Research has found that giving support, not receiving support, more positively affects individuals. Helping others boosts our self-esteem, builds trust, and creates a larger sense of community.
Think about the last time you selflessly supported a friend, helped a family member move, or cooked a meal for a loved one. It’s guaranteed that the simple act improved your mood as well as theirs. Win-win.
You’ll develop more skills.
The development of soft skills is a huge benefit of volunteering. Soft skills include such capabilities as empathy, adaptability, communication, and creativity.
I never knew the intricacies of effective communication until I was volunteering in Thailand relying on hand gestures, hugs, and smiles in order to express interest. I’ve always thought of myself as a swift communicator, but it wasn’t until I was challenged to think beyond my verbal skills that I started to personally grow.
Adding these abilities to your repertoire makes you a more competent person in general which increases your self-esteem, makes you more marketable as an employee, and subsequently boosts good feelings.
You’ll stop thinking about yourself so goddamn much.
Want to get out of your own head for a while? Volunteering is a simple way to focus on others instead of yourself. Helping others has the ability to interrupt stress-producing patterns that are bound to bring us down.
Back when I was volunteering in Honduras I spent some time helping a family construct a house. As we nailed up drywall, conversation started flowing: I learned the context of where this family had been and what this new home symbolized in terms of their future. Their children had been murdered by drug lords, and after two years it was time to simultaneously honor the past and celebrate the future.
It’s simple, being involved in something bigger than yourself means that you won’t worry so much about your own problems, and as we all know endless selfish thinking does nothing for our happiness.
You’ll learn more about the world.
Whether your volunteering experience happens in your own community or internationally the reality is that it will undoubtedly open your eyes to the realities of the world around you. Your knowledge of socio-economic dynamics, gender equality, or cultural differences will expand.
Staying with a family in Peru’s Colca Canyon I dedicated some time to volunteering on a sustainable farming project. They showed me that happiness is not necessarily correlated with economic wealth, that cows can be family, and that the water at the top of the mountains contains magic. It sounds cliche, but books will never amount to dirt underneath your fingernails.
Knowledge is power and gaining a better understanding of the realities of the world is a rewarding, feel good, endeavor.
Volunteering is a loose term and can be enacted in any way that works best for you as an individual. From spending an hour a week at a local dog shelter to spending six months at a marine conservation program, the options are plentiful. Figure out the way that works best for you and then get out there and enjoy as your dopamine and serotonin levels start to rise.