V is for Volunteer: it's good for you, but pay attention to the caveat

This series is an alphabetical exploration of 26 options for living well, despite everything. It answers the question–How can we live well, despite problems? 
Volunteer: it’s good for you! (Say the researchers and writers at Harvard Health Watch)
Volunteering has mental health benefits:

  • Volunteers feel more socially connected than non-volunteers;
  • This helps to ward off loneliness and depression.

A growing body of evidence also indicates that volunteering has physical health benefits:

  • Adults over age 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers.

Here’s the caveat:

  • As reported by Harvard Health,  A 2012 study in the journal Health Psychology found that participants who volunteered with some regularity lived longer, but only if their intentions were truly altruistic. In other words, they had to be volunteering to help others—not to make themselves feel better.
  • HA! I love it!

My volunteering time these days (3-5 hours/month) is spent teaching and writing group poetry at a day program center for disabled adults. It brings together my passion for poetry and my advocacy for people with disabilities, and I’m enjoying it immensely, as are they. It definitely works to ward off loneliness and depression, especially when I walk into the room and someone, so happy to see me, breaks into spontaneous cheers with applause!
When is the last time people cheered and clapped because you entered a room?
How have you used your talents and interests to help others? What rewards do you gain from volunteering?

18 thoughts on “V is for Volunteer: it's good for you, but pay attention to the caveat”

  1. I think being a volunteer is very important in today’s society.
    During high school I spent a year abroad, in Texas, living with a host family who had volunteered to take me in (for no money). I found the family through a volunteering program for exchange students called AFS in which I participated.
    Once I returned to Germany, I began working for AFS as a volunteer. I assisted exchange students coming from all over the world who came to Munich where they lived with host family. After doing that for about a year I was elected chairman of the local Munich chapter and continued being a volunteer for a second year.
    After two years I had tor retire from my position because I moved to Italy. I had lots of sharing our culture with the exchange students even though the volunteer work was stressful at times. It was definitely a great intercultural experience for me.

    1. Cheers to you, Julian. My good friend was a volunteer with another student exchange program (also all volunteer host families), and it was a life changing experience for her, as well as for me. I’m a strong believer in exchange programs. I think they really have served, very well, their intended purpose. They were created after WWII with the assumption that the more cross-cultural friendships we create, the less likely we are to be willing to go to war with the nations whose citizens are our friends.
      I’m glad it was a good experience for you!

  2. I volunteered at three places: a women’s back-to-work thrift house for women out of prison; a community garden helping children with their own gardens; and a book exchange for literacy. Now I volunteer only at the children’s community garden. The other two “shared” my name and I was swamped with similar requests for work and money. The same happened when we contributed to emergency funding to help pay for utilities for unemployed families. For awhile I was thinking it was true, that no good deed goes unpunished. Now I’m reluctant to volunteer or donate.

    1. That’s a sad, sad betrayal Marylin — when agencies treat their volunteers like a “commodity” they can use for fundraising. “Share” is a poor euphemism for “sell out” in this case.
      I’m glad you weighed in to make us aware of this practice. I will be very careful about my volunteer time and hours. I know that the place I’m volunteering now does not do anything like that. They are also not highly bureaucratic — I think bureaucracy in non-profits will have to be a warning sign for me. When they begin to look to much like “for-profit” corporations, I’ll be keeping them at arm’s length.
      Your story needs to be made public, and the agencies who resort to such practices, should to be exposed and reprimanded. !! (I’ll be thinking about this for a long time; it incenses me!)

      1. I’m also thinking, there must be some caveat for agencies who misuse their volunteers. As in, “volunteers will only be a long-term resource for your programs, if your motives are right in using them, if your focus is on the human connection and fostering compassion and respect.
        Because whenever a person or agency “uses” people for their own gain, they ultimately lose!
        (It was entirely just that the rumdums lost valuable you!)

  3. The best way to forget about your own aches, pains and problems is to get out and help someone who may not be able to help themselves. You can start in your own neighborhood.

    1. Exactly, Jill! And looking at Marylin’s experience, I would add that it’s best to start in one’s own neighborhood, with people who truly are neighbors, in other words, with whom it is possible to build a personal, rather than a corporate/consumer relationship.
      Good advice from you! <3

  4. It seems as though your post has perfect timing for me Tracy! I’ve typically volunteered in my community in the past and always love the feeling of giving back. One of my favorite experiences was working with underrepresented children in DC and tutoring them in math. However, I haven’t found a place to volunteer in Ann Arbor and have been remiss in doing some research on potential organizations. Reading your post reminded me of why volunteering is so important!

    1. I’m glad to hear that this has spurred you to look into opportunities to share your knowledge and your caring.
      Take a look at Marylin’s comment about agencies who sold her name; and be savvy — ask about their privacy policy and don’t put up with any agency that thinks you are a commodity, rather than a human!!
      (I feel compelled, having encouraged people to volunteer, to alert you to Marylin’s experience. )
      I’m sure you’ll find the right opportunity, at the right time. <3

  5. I’ve been feeling a little inner nudge to volunteer again. Waiting to see what opens up. Hospice might be the place. I’ve volunteered in Post-Katrina work, Habitat for Humanity, and teaching Sunday School in the past. The rewards are great, but I think the caveat is important.

    1. That little inner nudge is so important; and I think, at least for me, part of finding the right motivation. When I volunteer out of a sense of duty or responsibility, I can easily overextend. But when I listen for that quiet voice and then the door of opportunity opens in a way that feels providential, I know…. this is the time and the place.
      Thanks for reminding us to listen and reflect before making a commitment, rather than to charge ahead out of sheer willpower. You’re voice is alway a welcoming one of wisdom in the conversation, Shirley!

  6. Some may have cheered and clapped when I LEFT the room. 😉
    Before I started teaching, I volunteered with Operation Hope. They worked with children of migrant workers in an after school program. The school was about 40 miles away. I went twice a week and I loved the interactions I had with the children there. Next school year (2015-16) will be my last year teaching. After that, I’d like to work in a program like that one again.
    That it provides health benefits, too. Great news! 😉

    1. 😉
      I’m sure that some have also cheered and clapped when you showed up!
      I think that good full time teachers do enough volunteering. They’re never paid for everything that they do for students.
      Wow — retirement coming. How exciting for you! And how wonderful for whomever you are able to volunteer with/for after you retire. Are you looking forward to the change of pace?

      1. Thank you, Tracy, for the vote of confidence. 😉 I definitely am looking forward to the change of pace when I retire. That doesn’t mean I’ll slow down and sit on my rocker all day. It just means there are other things I want to accomplish.

  7. I have volunteered with an adult literacy program, United Way and Salvation Army in the past. Currently, I am looking for another volunteer opportunity. Being retired I feel the need to give back and find that I always receive more than I give. Good post!

  8. Karin Van den Bergh

    Ha! Yes, I’ve heard that Harvard report before. I tricking one for some, I guess 😉
    I’ve volunteered for Cunina (sponsorships and projects for young children in developing countries) and Oxfam. Nothing but joy! Love connecting with people!

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