My youngest daughter finally celebrated her eleventh birthday with her friends this past week. Despite her birthday falling in April, her softball commitments in the spring prevented her from hosting a party until school was over.
One of the coolest things about her party was that she asked her friends not to get her a present. Instead, she requested they bring food or toys for animals, and the last part of her party was taking the goods to the local humane society to donate them to a cause she believes in.
All her friends visited the animal shelter and got to interact with several of the cats and dogs. At the tender age of eleven, my youngest daughter has already volunteered at the shelter several times.
As a father, I burst with pride at the sight of my daughter having such a huge heart for a worthy cause. As a mental health professional, I marvel at how much helping others and making a difference benefits people’s lives.
So why don’t more folks see volunteering as a legitimate and worthy method of improving mental health?
Mental Health Benefits of Volunteering
In the United States, millions of Americans dedicate anywhere from a few hours a month to several hours per week volunteering. Approximately twenty-six percent of adults volunteer, with most falling into the 35-54 age bracket.
Women volunteer more frequently than men, and those with higher educational attainment tend to be more likely to volunteer. There are a variety of motives for volunteering, and plenty of rewards to be gained when helping others.
Research published by the federal government’s Corporation for National and Community Service found that people who routinely volunteer (at least 100 hours a year, which breaks down to 2 hours a week), especially older adults, live longer and experience better physical and mental health than those who do not.
These results were especially important for older adults who already started to experience a physical decline.
The benefits of volunteering also provide physical and mental benefits for adolescents and teens. Researchers from the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Education and Department of Psychology studied the effects of volunteering on teen’s physical and mental health.
The volunteer group of students spent one hour per week working with elementary school children in after-school programs in their neighborhood.
After 10 weeks, students in the volunteer group showed improvement in their cardiovascular and mental health and reported increases in empathy and altruistic behavior.
Adolescents who volunteer to help others also benefit themselves, suggesting a novel way to improve mental and physical wellbeing.
The Ambivalence or Resistance to Volunteering
Why don’t more people volunteer? Well, here are the most common excuses I come across in my personal and professional experience:
1. Time limitations
3. It’s more work than fun
4. I don’t know anyone
5. Too young
6. Associate volunteering with organized religion
7. I don’t believe I can make a difference
Like many things in life, the more creative a person thinks, and the more research and planning that takes place, the better you’ll find that volunteering isn’t as hard or bad as you might think it is.
But buyer beware; if serving others isn’t fun, if it’s not your ideal summer responsibility … that’s okay because volunteering isn’t meant to just be about you.
You can and will reap the benefits from developing a servant’s attitude, but first and foremost, volunteering is giving your time and energy to others.
In a culture with skyrocketing rates of narcissism, individualism, and self-absorption in young folks, volunteering can be one way to help young adults and adolescents develop empathy, compassion, gratitude, and connection to others.
The Key to a Meaningful and Purposeful Life: Living Out Your Values
Many of the folks I see in therapy benefit from volunteering. It gives them a sense of accomplishment. It provides them with positive feelings about themselves. It gives their lives a sense of purpose and meaning.
But the biggest benefit for the volunteer is that it provides them a sense of living out their values.
The young folks I see in therapy tend to struggle with having an “internal locus of control” – a belief that their lives and their actions can truly make a difference.
It is common for me to have clients complete a values inventory, identifying the morals and principles that they hold in high regard. Then I’ll have them assess how much or little they are living out their values in daily living.
Many of my guys are discouraged by the inventory. The values and principles they hold highest in their beliefs are often not represented in their time, priorities, and daily tasks.
But I encourage them with a simple fact; it’s not that they can’t make a difference but rather, that they aren’t channeling time and effort to things that will make a difference.
Volunteering as an Antidote to Boredom
One of my areas of specialty is working with failure to launch young guys.
Many of them have experienced academic struggles. Most have taken time off from college. They are working part-time jobs, living at home, and often isolated from their childhood peers who are still off at college or now immersed in adult responsibilities.
They have more free time than is benefiting them, but these guys often wind up time gaming or wasting their time away on Netflix or YouTube.
Viewing volunteering as a legitimate tool to progress in life is one of the first things we do in therapy. We identify issues and community/societal needs that they care about to reduce the nullifying effect of volunteering for the wrong reasons.
For many, serving others as an intentional act of mental wellbeing is a novel concept.
Volunteer Star: Never Stop, Never Stopping
I’ve had the good fortune to travel to different countries on service trips. But I’ve also sorted clothes at a local shelter, made bologna and cheese sandwiches for underprivileged children, and interacted with the elderly at an assisted living facility.
There are so many ways, big and small, that someone can serve and help others.
I encourage you to use the summer as a starting point. And hopefully, once summer ends and you’re back to the daily grind of the school year schedule, the benefits of volunteering will compel you to continue to find the time and ways to help out others in need.
Where to find volunteer opportunities:
- Community theaters, museums, and monuments
- Historical restorations, national parks, and conservation organizations
- Libraries or senior centers
- Local animal shelters, rescue organizations, or wildlife centers
- Places of worship such as churches or synagogues
- Service organizations such as Lions Clubs or Rotary Clubs
- Youth organizations, sports teams, and after-school programs
Information on Volunteering Opportunities:
- All for Good is the largest database of volunteer opportunities.
- Catchafire connects professionals with nonprofits and social good initiatives for pro bono volunteer work.
- DoSomething is one of the most popular giving platforms for millennials.
- DonorsChoose helps you make an impact in classrooms around the country.
- GenerationOn gives young people the tools and know-how to create change in the world.
- Volunteer.gov is a U.S. federal government portal for volunteers.