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Reaching Out to Heal Within- Part III

When my daughters were 3 and 5 years old, I began searching for a place to do family community volunteering. As a child I had volunteered with my family, and then as a teen, I found my own opportunities. As I poured through websites, searching for an organization that had opportunities for a family with young children, I hadn’t realized that I was responding to a deeper call. Like many of you, for much of my life, I have felt called to reach out to others at times of suffering and need.

As we finish up our 3 part series on reaching out to connect with others, we are going to explore the benefits of volunteering. We are going to look beyond the benefits to the recipients, to the often overlooked benefits to the giver.

People focused volunteering, during a crisis or a during time of personal adversity, can happen in our backyard or across the country. While volunteer work also helps animals and our environment, there are unique benefits to directly addressing the needs of people. Reaching a hand out to someone else can help them manage through a trauma, provide support and safety during a time of distress or just give someone else human to human care. Research has shown that helping others can benefit the giver as well as the receiver. Specifically, volunteering to help others has been shown to have benefits that contribute to greater wellbeing in the giver.

Helping others doesn’t have to be limited to responding with donations during a natural disaster. There are endless direct and indirect opportunities to help others. By direct opportunities, I mean those in which the immediate recipient is a person or group of people. Think of delivering meals for Meal on Wheels or volunteering to serve meals at a homeless shelter. Indirect opportunities refer to those activities that increase resources or access to resources for people. Consider how donating to Goodwill helps create jobs and low cost goods for people.

How helping helps

So, how does good will help those of us who donate our time and resources? Here are just a few benefits:

Improved cognitive health

A recent study showed that compared with older adults who didn’t volunteer, those who did volunteer reported fewer cognitive complaints over time. One explanation is that participating in volunteer activities engages our brains in a variety of ways. From problem solving to the social interactions involved, different areas of our brains are being engaged. Think of your brain like a muscle that gets stronger when it’s being worked out. Using our brains helps preserve brain function.

Improved life satisfaction

Some people report greater life satisfaction when they volunteer. In a 2018 study, longer participation in volunteering was linked to greater life satisfaction in older adults. Many of us can relate to the sense of purpose connected to being a part of something greater than ourselves. This study suggests that in volunteering this effect is amplified over time. Understanding our purpose contributes to a greater over all sense of life satisfaction.

Many of us can relate to the sense of purpose connected to being a part of something greater than ourselves.

Improved physical health

In a study of older adults, volunteering regularly over a long period of time led to less disability than volunteering sporadically or not at all. In general, volunteer activities can be physically engaging or at least, pull us out of being sedentary. Spending 2 hours on a Saturday morning organizing a homeless food pantry will work your body more than spending the morning drooling over the Food Network (no judgement, I’ve been there too).

More social engagement

Many volunteer activities allow you to work along side other people, many of whom you’ve never met. We are social beings and social interactions are critical for our wellbeing. Volunteering can create opportunities for cooperative engagement and in some cases, spawn new relationships.

Increase empathy

Focusing on someone else’s life circumstance and needs allows us to turn the focus away from ourselves, even if for just a short amount of time. This outward facing focus can help us grow in our capacity to empathize with others as we experience the world from another’s perspective.

Living a life that focuses on someone outside of ourselves not only helps his or her life, it can be important for our lives too. In this season of gift giving, egg nog and endless Christmas carols, consider how you can give your time and resources to someone else.

Photo credit Rodolfo Quirós from Pexels


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