This weekend, Sept. 22-24, hundreds of people from the Cleveland/Akron area of Ohio where I live will volunteer their time and efforts serving others through 31 different nonprofit organizations. Other people around the United States will also join by volunteering or participating in some way in their own locations.
All of this activity is part of the 3rd Annual Vincent William Baran Day of Service, which my wife and I started in 2021 in memory of our son. Here’s a video of what some of that looks like.
Aside from the actual work that these volunteers do, they also continually share stories about how their participation fostered a sense of meaning, gratitude, and joy.
Helping others, it seems, helps us as well.
Such anecdotal findings align with science. Volunteer activity is a topic that researchers have explored for years. People have studied why people volunteer, how volunteering affects volunteers, how volunteering is part of a broader category of what’s called prosocial behavior, best practices for managing volunteers, and more. Focusing in on why helping others helps those of us doing the helping, here are a few key items of note.
Sense of Meaning
One idea is that as people volunteer more, they begin to see their role as a volunteer as an increasingly relevant and important aspect of who they are. As that sense of identity grows stronger, volunteers then increasingly perceive that they matter to other people—and mattering to other people is a big part of having a sense of meaning in life.
From my own volunteering experiences and from the stories I’ve heard from others, this makes sense. We all like to matter; we all like to feel needed to some extent. And our everyday lives may or may not give us that sense of mattering—or at least not in a way that’s concentrated in a singular effort.
It’s also easy for us to live within our own socioeconomic bubbles, with people who live in our neighborhoods, work in similar careers, or participate in similar social activities. If that socioeconomic bubble is one in which you and your fellow members are relatively comfortable and self-sufficient, you may not have many opportunities for direct helping of others who really need it. Volunteering provides such an opportunity and a vehicle through which you can, at least for a few hours, do work that really matters to someone.
If volunteering can increase one’s sense of mattering and meaning, what does that do for them? One outcome appears to be a benefit to their mental well-being. A study that analyzed data collected at various points of time over the course of more than 10 years suggests that people who engage in volunteering tend to have higher self-reported psychological well-being, while statistically controlling for various elements that could influence the effect.
This brings up an interesting point regarding the maintenance or treatment of mental health. Certainly some mental health conditions absolutely require therapy and other forms of professional treatment. Alongside and perhaps integrated into such interventions, it appears that some people may benefit from the external focus on helping others that volunteering provides. Perhaps, as this study suggests, volunteering could be considered a public health intervention due to its positive influence on depression, life satisfaction, and well-being.
From my experiences interacting with those who participated in the Vincent William Baran Day of Service in 2021 and 2022, I found that those who volunteered were grateful for the opportunity and joyful as a result. For myriad reasons, it appears that humans in general like to help each other, and that doing so can positively influence how we think and feel—an effect that’s likely even stronger as we age.
Loneliness is common. It’s also harmful. One study that reviewed and analyzed 114 other studies found that loneliness had a moderate to large effect on many different measures of mental health, physical health, well-being, and even sleep and cognition.
We are social creatures. And in addition to providing a way to help others, volunteering provides a positive opportunity for the maintenance and development of social connections. Namely, when we volunteer, we often do so with other volunteers. We get to meet them, build shared experiences around a common interest or cause, and thereby extend our social circle.
The social connection opportunities provided by volunteering likely matter even more as we age, but it’s safe to say that positive social interactions are important at all ages. And building those positive relationships within the context of doing good in one’s community seems to be all the more of a big win.
So whether it’s due to building a stronger sense of meaning, boosting mental well-being, or forging strong social connections; it’s clear that volunteering helps those who engage in it. We shouldn’t, of course, engage in volunteering solely for selfish reasons. Doing so might temper its personal benefits, and our focus should remain on actually doing good.
But by helping others it does indeed appear that we help ourselves.
For more details about how to manage your subscription including e-mails and notifications, click here.