The helper’s high: The benefits of volunteering are more powerful than you think
by FWD>DFW | July 30, 2019
For it is in giving that we receive. — Saint Francis of Assisi
The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity. — Leo Tolstoy
We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give. — Winston Churchill
For centuries, the most influential thinkers have suggested that happiness is found in helping others. And, as it turns out, this Kumbaya mentality isn’t just empty words; the wisdom is increasingly supported by both scientific and sociological research, which substantiate the body, mind, and spirit benefits of volunteerism.
By measuring hormones and brain activity, researchers have proven that being helpful to others releases dopamine — the “feel-good” chemical — in our brains and lights up the same part of the brain as receiving rewards or experiencing pleasure. It’s called the “the helper’s high”.
In essence, humans are hard-wired to give to others; it’s rooted in biology.
Recent studies have confirmed that when we do serve others, we actually also help — and heal — ourselves. The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences is one of the first to examine peer-reviewed evidence regarding the psychosocial health benefits of volunteering, where they found that volunteering can help reduce depression and is linked to better overall health and longevity.
Why? Helping others can counteract the effects of stress, anger, and anxiety because of the meaningful connection that comes from it. It can also make you feel better about yourself by boosting self-confidence. Working with pets and other animals can have the same mood-boosting effect.
Similarly, helping others can counteract the feelings of loneliness, which has become nothing short of an epidemic in America. A recent study reported that nearly one half of adults sometimes or always feels alone, putting them at risk for developing a range of physical and mental illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and depression.
Volunteering isn’t just a compelling way to connect with others and make friends, it can also create purpose — something that goes missing during periods of loneliness. One of the longest-running studies on happiness, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, suggests that volunteering is a way to boost happiness by providing this sense of purpose.
What’s more, in a recent survey of more than 10,000 people in the U.K., two-thirds reported that volunteering helped them feel less isolated and 75% said that they felt an improvement in mental health and well-being. These effects were especially pronounced for those in the 18-35 age bracket.
Another study of nearly 6,000 people in the U.S. examined recently widowed older adults. After they volunteered for two or more hours per week, their average level of loneliness subsided to match that of married adults — even after controlling for demographics, baseline health, personality traits, and other social involvement.
Loneliness and isolation can also lead to cognitive decline, including memory loss, in older adults. Research suggests that people who regularly engage in mentally stimulating activities build up more neural connections — and volunteering is one way to stay engaged and stimulated.
Beyond the mental and emotional benefits of helping others, there are physical benefits, too — especially for older adults. Older volunteers tend to walk more, find it easier to cope with everyday tasks, are less likely to develop high blood pressure, have better thinking skills, less chronic pain, and increased overall well-being.
Volunteering isn’t just good for the people serving, it’s good for the community being served.
“In addition to being blessed with big growth and prosperity, Dallas is also challenged by big needs,” says Jennifer Sampson, McDermott-Templeton president and CEO of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. “Poverty, homelessness, hunger and health, and educational disparities are also part of the North Texas landscape — but we believe we have the collective will, resources, and know-how to take on these issues and make our community better. And volunteering is a big part of that.”
So where do you start?
Start with your areas of interest. If you love working with children, read to kids or help with after-school programs. If you like connecting with older adults, meal service agencies, hospitals, and assisted living facilities might be of interest. Animal lovers can spend time with their favorite furry friends at local shelters. Organizational and administrative work is a great option for those who prefer to work behind the scenes. And, the list goes on. No matter what you do, you’ll benefit the community.
“Whether you’re serving meals, helping young kids read, tutoring older kids — or anything else — it all makes a big impact,” says Frito-Lay CEO Steven Williams. “Frito-Lay and PepsiCo are committed to the success of the community we call home. By providing support to North Texas, especially with our Southern Dallas Thrives initiative, we believe we can strengthen our entire community and help all of our neighbors thrive.”
You can find volunteer opportunities across North Texas by visiting fwddfw.com/volunteer.
FWD>DFW in partnership with VOMO, a volunteer management platform, have launched a resource that provides comprehensive lists of community service options throughout North Texas (and beyond), sorted by affinity and type.
“I am convinced that almost everyone wants to connect, to give, and to make a difference. But they don’t always know how to do so,” added Sampson. “That’s why I’m so excited about what FWD>DFW is doing for our community with this new volunteer platform.”
FWD>DFW, together with VOMO, take the guesswork out of figuring out where to find the need and how to sign up to help. You can even track your hours for school or work — or just to see the economic impact you’re making in the community. Think of it as your one-stop-shop for serving others.
“The simple act of volunteerism moves our community forward — and that’s why I’m focused on emphasizing this cause through the power of FWD>DFW and The Dallas Morning News,” said Grant Moise, president and publisher of The Dallas Morning News.
The moral of the story? If you want to feel good, go out and do some good.
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