In recent years the medical community has begun to recognize that good health means much more than cholesterol readings and numbers on the scale. Year after year new research sheds more and more light on the correlation between our mental, physical, and emotional health. We are beginning to understand that an integrated approach to an individual's health must be taken to achieve optimal health and well-being. In addition to good nutrition and regular exercise, a person's quality of life, relationships, sense of purpose and connection to community are equally important factors.
In order to better understand this connection, researchers have begun to study the effects of volunteering on health and overall life satisfaction and some surprising results have been uncovered. As children and adolescents, most of us can recall our parents or teachers educating us about the importance of giving, sharing and helping others in need. We may recall participating in a canned food drive in school or being encouraged to donate the toys, books or clothes that no longer served us to someone that could use them. As young children we may not have initially wanted to see our favorite stuffed animal (Teddy or Cuddles) in the donation box, but we can recall that it somehow felt good once we understood it was for a good cause. It turns out our parents and teachers had some very good advice that could help us live healthier, happier, and even longer lives.
Giving one's time or resources without any expectation of compensation is usually done with the intention of helping others. But what many people may not realize is that the act of volunteering to help others may actually benefit the volunteer as much or more than the recipient.
Over the past two decades many studies have been performed and analyzed by government, collegiate, and even independent groups and have all generally agreed that helping others or contributing to the greater good of humanity somehow has a positive effect on overall well-being. This research points to a strong relationship between volunteering and improved physical and mental health.
One recent study led by Dr. Suzanne Richards at the University of Exeter Medical School in the south of England, analyzed 40 published studies on volunteering and found strong evidence that those who volunteer are happier and have lower levels of depression. The study also found that volunteers had a 20 percent lower mortality rate compared to non-volunteers in their age grou.
In another study on Social Science and Medicine by the London School of Economics, it was found that regardless of socio–economic status, people who volunteer, even once a month, were shown to be 7% happier than their peers that did not volunteer. But that's not all. Those that volunteered every two to four weeks were 12% happier and those that volunteered weekly were 16% happier than non-volunteers.
Due to the fact that it takes far longer to follow younger adults over spans of many years much of the research has been on retired and older adult volunteers. However, there have been several studies on the effects of volunteering in younger adults that have reported younger volunteers also experience better health and well-being (e.g., environmental volunteering, Pillemer, FullerRowell, Reid, & Wells, 2010). And in a recent survey conducted by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, 9 in 10 teens that volunteer said service makes them feel good about themselves and a large majority of the teens indicated that it made them feel needed, connected to others, happier, and less stressed.
Although some researchers caution that more studies need to be conducted to shed some additional light on whether there may socio-economic or even biological reasons that are contributing to why someone might volunteer in the first place; most researchers generally agree that volunteers experience better health, happiness and longevity. Granted these factors may be contributing, many theorists believe that there are some obvious reasons that regular volunteering is likely to benefit people of all backgrounds.
So, what might be the reasons for the positive benefits of volunteering? The following are a consolidated list of what many researchers hypothesize.
Volunteering Helps Keep You Physically Active
Getting off of the couch and participating in any activity is far better than remaining indoors being sedentary. Volunteer work gets you out of the house and moving. Those that volunteer for more physically challenging activities such as, leaf raking at parks, planting a community garden, handy man repairs, or packing donation boxes, will reap the most physical benefits. However, just the act of preparing to leave the house and traveling to and from causes us to be more active than staying home in front of the brain zapping, energy sapping effects of the boob tube. The more physically active we are the better equipped we are to deal with stress which is known to lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and is responsible for a slew of other health benefits
Volunteering Keeps Your Mind Active
Remember the old saying use it or lose it? Keeping the mind strong through volunteer work that involves activities such as, bookkeeping, planning, records-keeping, or helping disabled folks with balancing their checkbook helps to keep the mind active and sharp; thereby, lowering the risk of dementia in later years. Additionally, many volunteer opportunities require learning something new in order to do the work which helps improve memory and cognitive thinking.
Volunteering Combats Depression
Studies show that isolation and boredom are key contributors to depression. Human beings are hard wired for social interaction. Although having some alone time in a hectic world can be a good thing, prolonged isolation and boredom can lead to depression. Volunteering can be especially beneficial for retired individuals as it provides a way of meeting new people and preventing boredom; however, a vibrant social life is beneficial to people of all ages. Some theorists provide evidence that volunteering contributes to a sense of deeper meaning in contrast to other social activities that provide more temporary and less meaningful social interaction; i.e., playing board games or shooting the breeze with a friend.
Volunteering Can Give Us a Great Sense of Purpose
Volunteering for a cause that aligns with what you are passionate about can give life purpose and meaning. Older adults, especially for those in retirement who no longer participate in daily career activities which used to fill their days, can find meaning and purpose by helping others. Seniors have much to give in the way of specialized knowledge and experience. Everyone hopes to make a difference in his or her lifetime and the retirement years afford plenty of time to do this. Likewise, pre-retirement adults and students may not have work or studies that fill this desire to contribute to the greater good and volunteering provides this opportunity.
Volunteering Can Boost Self-Confidence
When we combine all of the of the aspects of volunteering: the feeling of purpose, participating in positive social interaction, a sense of belonging, learning new skills, being physically active, and the "feel good" feeling that comes from the selfless act of helping others; we realize a sense of achievement. And achievements build self-confidence and self-esteem
A Final Note: Good Reasons to Involve the Kids
A recent review of research findings on the impact of volunteering led by Jane Allyn Piliavin, a retired University of Wisconsin sociologist, indicated a link between youth volunteering and a higher quality of life as an adult. Additionally, the study found positive effects on grades and attitudes toward education as well as a reduction in drug use, drop-out rates and unplanned pregnancies among high school students that volunteered regularly.
So There You Have It
These are some of the main theories on why volunteering is good for your health and overall life satisfaction. So, what now? You may be thinking; "I want to be happier and love longer". Before you dash off and commit to the first volunteer opportunity that comes along; consider the following.
Before You Volunteer
A couple of things to keep in mind before you decide to volunteer. Research shows that those who choose volunteer work that aligns with their beliefs and who are truly doing it to help others and not for self-serving reasons experience the most benefit and are more likely to continue. Volunteering should be something you do because you want to. Researchers caution against volunteering for self-oriented reasons as it can actually have the opposite effect on your health. If it feels like a burden or you over extend yourself you won't reap the beneficial effects. Volunteering should be something you can give from the heart with a smile on your face.
So, if you have been thinking about volunteering and just have not taken the first step, begin by taking inventory to ensure that you find the right opportunity. Not to say that if you see someone in need you should not take action immediately; but there are some things to consider if you wish to make volunteering an on-going part of your life.
Finding the Right Opportunity for You
Take inventory of your skills, abilities, time, and passions.
• What causes are you passionate about?
• What skills do you have?
• What do you enjoy doing?
• Are you drawn toward children, seniors, animals, the environment, etc.
• Do you enjoy indoor or outdoor activities?
• How much time can you realistically commit? Do you want to start slow with one hour a month or do you have more time on your hands?
• What is your personality like? Would you rather be upfront or behind the scenes?
• Would you like to go it alone or with other family members involved?
Don't be afraid to try a few different opportunities before you decide what aligns best with you and your lifestyle. Remember, have fun and enjoy the experience of helping others; your health and your cause will be better off for it!
Where to Find Volunteer Opportunities
There are thousands of opportunities out there to volunteer including contacting schools, libraries, churches, etc. and asking them about where they could use your skills and passion. The worldwide web is also an excellent choice for finding opportunities you may have never found otherwise. The following are just a few great places to locate many different types of opportunities on the internet.
Volunteer Nevada County is a virtual volunteer center connecting non-profits and volunteers of all ages. If you are looking for a way to utilize your skills, explore an area of interest, fill your free time, and make a difference in the lives of those around you, Volunteer Nevada County is the place to learn how you can help. Sign up to volunteer, receive email bulletins and learn about upcoming volunteer events and resources.
Visit www.volunteernevadacounty.org or call (530) 271-0255 for more information.
Center for Nonprofit Leadership
The Center for Nonprofit Leadership (CNL) is a resource center for public benefit organizations in Nevada County and the Sierra Nevada region of California. You can check out their membership page for a list of many Nevada County non-profit organizations
Visit www.cnlsierra.org and go to the membership page.
Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) Placer, Sacramento, and Yolo
RSVP is part of the Corporation for National & Community Service and is sponsored locally by Sacramento County Department of Health & Human Services. Serving Sacramento, Placer and Yolo
Sacramento & Placer: (916) 875-3631 | Yolo: (916) 875-3592 or visit www.dhhs.saccounty.net and go to HHS Services/Senior and Adult Services page
Placer Community Foundation
For a list of Placer County Non-Profit Organizations visit www.placercf.org/resourcelibrary/directory-of-nonprofits and then contact the organization directly about volunteer opportunities
Volunteering for the County
There are many opportunities to volunteer with Placer County. You can be a museum docent, volunteer at county parks, assist the Sheriff's Office staff, and more. Put your abilities, knowledge and public service spirit to good use.Visit www.placer.ca.gov/government/volunteers for more information.
To find local and worldwide opportunities for volunteers of all ages check out VolunteerMatch. VolunteerMatch is the Web's largest volunteer engagement network, with over 100,000 active nonprofits, 150 corporate partners and 13 million visitors annually. They have already provided millions of people with a great place to volunteer and helped tens of thousands of organizations better leverage volunteers to create real impact. Visit www.volunteermatch.org for a list of opportunities that you can search for by city
Not the right time to volunteer? Don't worry. The research also indicates that just the act of donating to a worthy cause releases the same endorphins that make you feel good. You can still lend your support with the gift of a donation. Non-profits survive with the help of donations from generous people like you.
SYRCL (pronounced “circle”) is the leading voice for the protection and restoration of the Yuba River and the Greater Yuba Watershed. Founded in 1983 through a rural, grassroots campaign to defend the South Yuba River from proposed hydropower dams, SYRCL has developed into a vibrant community organization with over 3,500 members and volunteers. To donate or volunteer, visit www.welcomehomevets.org or call 530-265-5961 for more information.
Hospice of the Foothills provides end of life care for more than 500 patients and families each year, most in their own homes in western Nevada County and surrounding communities. For those who cannot be cared for in their own homes, Hospice of the Foothills also cares for patients in skilled nursing facilities and residential care facilities. To donate or volunteer, visit www.hospiceofthefoothills.org or call 530-272-5739 for more information.
Sammie’s Friends provides medical care for the animals at the Nevada County Animal Shelter, making them adoptable, and to support other disadvantaged animals in Nevada County that without help would continue to suffer or would be euthanized. Sammie’s Friends also operates the Nevada County Animal Shelter at 14647 McCourtney Road in Grass Valley, CA. To donate or volunteer, visit www.sammiesfriends.org or call 530-471-5041 for more information.
SNCS- Sierra Nevada Children’s Services is a private, nonprofit child care resource and referral agency that has served families, early childhood professionals and the community since 1978. SNCS has utilized state funding resources and community partnerships to actively support whole family growth and individualized personal development. To donate or volunteer, visit www.sncs.org or call 530-272-8866 for more information.
Welcome Home Vets was established in Grass Valley California in 2009 in response to the need for veterans living with post traumatic stress and other combat-related psychological conditions to continue receiving treatment with their therapists locally rather than change to start over with new mental health professionals at a United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facility in Auburn or Reno, Nevada.To donate or volunteer, visit www.welcomehomevets.org or call 530-272-3300 for more information.
Interfaith Food Ministry works to reduce food insecurity in Western Nevada County. They feed the hungry, helping to sustain good health and human dignity. Interfaith Food Ministry is a nonprofit dedicated to providing supplemental food to families in Western Nevada County. We receive no government funds. We rely totally on donations of money and food and the work of 450 volunteers.To donate or volunteer, visit www.interfaithfoodministry.org or call 530-273-8132 for more information.
Nevada County Diaper Project provides diapers for children of our community whose families cannot afford to purchase them. It was founded for the purpose of providing diapers to young families in the county who are receiving assistance through Interfaith Food Ministry.One in three American mothers struggles to provide diapers for their babies. To donate or volunteer, visit www.nevadacountydiaperproject.org or call 530-432-1974 for more information.
AnimalSave transforms the lives of cats and dogs by providing humane education, affordable spay and neuter services, and by finding loving homes.They envision a time when all animals are valued and treated with kindness and compassion. To donate or volunteer, visit www.animalsave.org or call 530-271-7071 for more information.
Child Advocates of Nevada County was founded in 1993 to provide Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) services to abused and neglected children who were dependents of the Dependency Court. Their mission is to provide advocacy, education, and prevention services to help our children grow up free from abuse and neglect. To donate or volunteer, visit www.caofnc.org or call 530-265-9550 for more information.
Bear Yuba Land Trust is a private, non-profit, membership-supported organization that works to promote voluntary conservation of the region’s natural, historical and agricultural legacy. With your support, the Land Trust provides a lasting community heritage by protecting and enhancing meadows, watersheds, forests, farms and ranches, trails and parks. To donate or volunteer, visit www.BYLT.org or call 530-272-5994 for more information.
RSVP - the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program of Nevada County recruits volunteers 55 years of age and older and places them in volunteer opportunities that match their skills and interests. RSVP of Nevada County is federally funded and is locally sponsored by Area 4 Agency on Aging. To donate or volunteer, visit www.volunteernevadacounty.org or call 530-271-0255 for more information.
Hospitality House is a nonprofit community shelter for the Homeless in Nevada County funded primarily by individual donations. The year-round shelter is a no tolerance safe haven; those seeking shelter at Hospitality House are offered three meals, along with laundry and shower facilities. Hospitality House is committed to ending homelessness by providing intensive case management services to all its guests. To donate or volunteer, visit www.hhshelter.org or call (530) 271-7144 for more information.
Nevada County Food and Toy Run - Every second Saturday in December hundreds of spectators line the route to watch motorcyclists (a record was set in 2009 with over 1,800!) rumble through the towns of Nevada City and Grass Valley on their way to the Nevada County Fairgrounds. There, hundreds of children and their families in need receive a turkey or ham and donated foods to take home for the Holidays. Each child receives at least 3 toys and everyone celebrates. To donate or volunteer, visit www.toyrun.org or call 530.470.0697.
Food Bank of Nevada Countyis a non-profit food assistance agency providing food distributionand nutrition education to hungry individuals and families. In many ways, America is the land of plenty. But for 1 in 6 Americans, hunger is a reality. The Food Bank’s mission is to procure nutritious food and distribute it to individuals and families of Nevada County who are in need. To donate or volunteer, visit www.foodbankofnc.org or call 530- 272-3796.