Community Volunteering: Help Others and Help Yourself

Posted on March 4, 2019 by Eleanor McKenzie
group of seniors sat talking over tea and cake

The Greek philosopher Aristotle once surmised that the essence of life is “To serve others and do good.”

When it comes to doing good, volunteering for a worthy cause – whatever that means to you – can be a good starting place.

But did you know that there’s a lot of research on the effect that volunteering can have on you, as a volunteer?

You may be surprised, just as I was, at the findings, which I’ll explore below.

Helping others leads to greater happiness

This statement is not something I dreamt up; it’s scientifically proven. A UK-based longitudinal study, published in the British Medical Journal, looked at the link between volunteering and mental wellbeing among the British population. The study suggested that people who volunteered reported feeling happier in themselves.

Volunteering may ‘provide a sense of purpose’, especially among older age groups, as well as helping to maintain social networks.

A study by the Carnegie Mellon University revealed that volunteering not only has mental health benefits; it also suggested that people over the age of 50 that volunteer on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers.

The study did caution that volunteering may not be the only direct cause for lower blood pressure. As well as volunteering, the people who took part in the study may live healthier lifestyles in general.

But, how exactly can volunteering reduce blood pressure?

The study reported that volunteer work could increase physical activity among people who aren’t otherwise very active. Lead researcher, Rodlescia Sneed said “Many people find volunteer work to be helpful with respect to stress reduction, and we know that stress is very strongly linked to health outcomes.”

How much volunteering do you need to do?

According to the study, 200 hours of volunteering per year correlated to lower blood pressure.
Other studies have found a health benefit from as little as 100 hours of volunteering a year. 200 hours a year is only 4 hours a week.

What type of volunteering is best for your wellbeing?

There is no definite answer to this question. Sneed suggests that mentally stimulating activities, like tutoring or reading might be helpful for maintaining memory and thinking skills.

As for physical activities, Sneed explained that “activities that promote physical activity would be helpful with respect to cardiovascular health,” yet no studies have fully explored the effects of specific volunteering activities.

However, a 2012 study published in Health Psychology suggested that when people volunteer regularly because they’re motivated by helping others (and not on making themselves feel better), they are more likely to live healthier lives.

The Wildlife Trust UK study on volunteering and wellbeing

A study on behalf of the UK’s Wildlife Trust, carried out by the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex between 2015 and 2017, evaluated the impact of nature-rich environments on health and wellbeing.

Their results suggested that the biggest impact on the health of volunteers working in natural surroundings was seen in those people with low levels of mental wellbeing at the start of the project. One volunteer told researchers, “It has helped my depression and agitation and helped me wind down and make decisions about my life,” while another said, “It has stopped me living under a duvet all day.” The full reports from the study are linked above.

Volunteering ideas in the UK

You may be aware of volunteering opportunities in your local area, but if you are stumped for ideas and don’t know where to start looking, Do-It is an online organisation where you can search by your postcode or town name.

There are always people and organisations that could use your help. By supporting those in need, you can benefit yourself. It really is a win-win situation.

Eleanor McKenzie

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.