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The Top 10 Health Benefits of Volunteering

Plus 10 quintessential volunteering ideas and solid tips to make the most of your volunteer time

Last Updated: Dec 8, 2021
artistic depiction of people volunteering

Volunteers make an immeasurable difference in the lives of others. Often, they perform with the core intention of helping those in need. But did you know that volunteering can benefit your own health as well? Certain activities can have therapeutic effects, leading to reduced stress levels.

Researchers have attempted to measure the benefits that volunteers receive, including a positive feeling referred to as helper’s high, greater trust in others, and increased social interaction. Not only is volunteering great for local communities and society as a whole, but it also provides mental, physical, and even emotional health benefits for volunteers themselves – it’s a win-win.

Health benefits of volunteering

From lowering stress to boosting self-confidence, research has shown that volunteering offers many health benefits, especially for older adults. Here are 10 of the top health benefits.

  1. Volunteering helps people stay physically and mentally active. Volunteer activities get you moving and thinking at the same time. One study found that volunteering among adults age 60 and over provided benefits to physical and mental health. Another study found that, in general, volunteers report better physical health than do non-volunteers. Older volunteers experience greater increases in life satisfaction and more positive changes in their perceived health as a result of volunteering.

  2. Volunteering decreases the risk of depression. Research has shown that volunteering leads to lower rates of depression, especially for individuals 65 and older. Volunteering increases social interaction and helps build a support system based on common interests — both of which have been shown to decrease depression.

  3. Volunteering may help you live longer. An analysis of data from the Longitudinal Study of Aging found that individuals who volunteer have lower mortality rates than those who do not, even when controlling for age, gender, and physical health. In addition, several studies have shown that volunteers with chronic or serious illnesses experience a decline in pain intensity and depression when serving as peer volunteers for others also suffering from chronic pain.

  4. Volunteering gives a sense of purpose and teaches valuable skills. Volunteers perform critical roles in assisting patients, families, and staff. They serve as greeters providing patient room information and directions; as transporters of patients and patient items; and as surgery and Critical Care waiting room attendants. They make prayer shawls, blankets, sweaters, and hats typically given to newborn babies and cancer patients. Services they provide include working in the hospital gift shop, performing clerical duties for staff, and offering pet therapy to patients through the Paws Force team. The work that volunteers provide is essential to everyday processes, which gives volunteers a sense of purpose.

  5. Volunteering may reduce stress levels. Volunteering may enhance a person’s social networks to buffer stress and reduce the risk of disease. By savoring time spent in service to others, you will feel a sense of meaning and appreciation, both given and received, which can have a stress-reducing effect.

  6. Volunteering helps you meet others and develop new relationships. One of the best ways to make new friends and strengthen existing relationships is to participate in a shared activity together. Volunteering is a great way to meet new people who share common interests with you. Dedicating your time as a volunteer also helps you expand your network and practice social skills with others.

  7. Volunteering helps you cultivate a feeling of gratitude. This social emotion isn’t always the easiest to express due to inherent vulnerability, but it can strengthen relationships with those closest to you. Volunteering allows you to take a step back to look at the bigger picture, which can help you realize not to take life for granted and always be appreciative of what you have. It’s the little things that can make the biggest difference.

  8. Volunteering helps you learn new skills. Whether you are learning about the proper maintenance of a national park or what types of plastics to look out for during a beach clean-up, learning new skills promotes critical thinking and keeps your mind young. Adding more skill sets helps you feel more competent and knowledgeable, which can be beneficial for future use and overall personal development.

  9. Volunteering teaches you how to be more empathetic and caring towards others. Empathy is what inspires us to offer support to those who are the most in need or vulnerable, such as helping an abandoned dog sleeping in the cold or lending a hand to an elderly woman struggling to unload groceries from her car. Volunteer work is a field run by compassion. By helping others, you are directly participating in creating a more kind, fair, and empathetic environment for a healthy society.

  10. Volunteering may increase your happiness. Research has shown that volunteering is linked to improvements in mental health, thus boosting happiness and overall self-confidence. By being helpful to others, we are also helping ourselves gain a sense of accomplishment and a more positive outlook on life, our identity, and our own personal goals. The more we give to others, the happier we may feel.

Our tips to make the most of volunteering as you begin

Decide how much time you are willing to commit: Research how many hours the volunteer program of your choice is going to require and compare it to your personal schedule.

Determine your goals: Is there anything specific you would like to achieve? Are you looking to expand on your interests or try something new? Do you prefer volunteering in your neighborhood or something on a broader scale?

Start small: Taking a baby step before committing to long-term volunteering lowers the barriers and helps you determine what works best for you.

Ask questions: You want to make sure that the volunteer option you choose is right for your goals, time, and commitment. Don’t be afraid to ask questions regarding the work and what is expected of you!

Try several things to see which one you enjoy the most: Participating in a few different activities is a great way to dip your toes into various fields of volunteer work.

Research your organization thoroughly: Look to see if they have a website and social media presence that can tell you a bit more about their purpose and how they operate.

Consider bringing a friend or family member: Going somewhere alone can be intimidating, especially for a first-time volunteer, so try to ask around to see if anyone would be willing to join you! Participating in volunteer work with someone else can help strengthen your relationship and create fond, lasting memories while also doing good for the community.

If it is not working out, find another volunteering opportunity: Don’t be afraid to change your focus or look for other options that better suit your goals and needs. There are so many organizations that need you! So don’t give up.

10 volunteer ideas to get started

Your Local YMCA: Volunteers at the Y help promote healthy living activities by coaching youth sports, mentoring, and ensuring that visitors have a positive experience. Volunteers can also help with translation services, facilitating after-school programs, and more.

Beach Clean-Ups: If you are lucky enough to live near a beach, participating in an organized beach clean-up can be an enjoyable way to spend a morning or afternoon. Even just spending an hour or two picking up discarded items from the sand and surrounding areas can make such a difference to both wildlife and beach visitors.

Animal Shelters: This is a perfect volunteering opportunity for animal lovers! You can help walk dogs, play with cats, clean cages, and overall provide love and attention for animals in need. Helping animals with their socialization can increase their chances of adoption since families are usually looking to bring home pets that possess social abilities.

Wildlife Centers: Although somewhat similar to animal shelters, wildlife centers are focused more on protecting and rehabilitating displaced animals in need, ranging from birds to seals depending on the geographic location. Some wildlife centers will require you to attend a basic training orientation and make a certain time commitment, such as a minimum of six months at the California Wildlife Center.

Soup Kitchens: Volunteering at a soup kitchen is great for anyone looking to help stock shelves, pick up food, deliver materials, and assist in daily meal distributions to the homeless. This volunteer opportunity is also something that people of all ages can participate in, including children. Whether it is handing out napkins, greeting everyone at the door, or just helping out where they can, children will be able to learn the importance of kindness and volunteering at a young age.

Your Local Library: If you enjoy reading and storytelling in a calm environment, volunteering at a public library is the perfect place for you. Tasks vary but may include clerical work, preparing craft materials for kids, sorting library displays, organizing storytime events, and more.

Museums: Calling all art and history lovers! This opportunity is the one for you. Museum volunteers greet visitors, handle tickets, assist with special events, and so much more. Learning about the inner workings of a museum while also being exposed to art and history is a great way to expand on your creative interests.

Nursing Homes: A fun way to interact with the elderly is to volunteer at a nursing home. Although each home will have its own duties, volunteers will generally help tidy residents’ rooms, host bingo game events, deliver meals, and provide fresh, joyful energy. Interacting positively with elderly residents can help them feel more comfortable, relaxed, and safe.

Red Cross: Known for its global emergency relief support, the Red Cross is a great non-profit organization and an incredible place to learn more about the importance of health and safety while directly providing support to those in need. According to their website, volunteers carry out 90 percent of the humanitarian work of the Red Cross in the following ways:

  • Helping communities prepare for emergencies
  • Teaching life-saving skills such as First Aid and CPR
  • Delivering aid to those recovering from disasters
  • Organizing blood drives

National Parks: Volunteering at a national park is perfect if you love the outdoors and want to be immersed in nature while also learning about park structure. Some tasks include assisting with clerical duties, maintaining trails, participating in field studies on animals or plants, and answering questions regarding visitation and safety.