What are the Mental Health Benefits of Volunteering?

Jake Newby

| 3 min read

If you’ve ever held a door open for someone or picked up and returned an item a stranger dropped, you were kind without expecting anything in return. And if you felt good about that deed afterwards, imagine how great you’d feel after volunteering.
If you’ve kicked around the idea of volunteering, this guide detailing three mental health benefits of volunteering could give you the motivation you need to sign up. Because as altruistic as volunteering is in nature, it’s good for you, too.
1. Volunteering is good for the mind
Who doesn’t feel good about supporting something they believe in? Volunteering can help reduce feelings of stress and activate the brain’s reward pathway through the release of dopamine, known as “the happy hormone.” When we lend a hand at an animal shelter, help operate a food pantry or spend time with older adults at senior living centers, it’s usually easy to feel the warmth that comes from improving the lives of others. That feel-good physiological effect we have after working out is the same one we get from helping others.
Reduced stress can lead to decreased risk of physical and mental health issues such as heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety, and general illness. A Longitudinal Study of Aging found that individuals who volunteer have lower mortality rates than those who do not, even when factoring in age, gender and physical health.
2. Volunteering combats loneliness
A 2019 Cigna survey found that three in five Americans reported feeling lonely. And this was before the COVID-19 pandemic slashed the amount of human-to-human interaction most of us were so used to every single day. The number of home-based workers more than tripled between 2019 and 2021, according to the United States Census Bureau, from 5.7% (roughly 9 million workers) to 17.9% (about 28 million workers). By 2025, a projected 32.6 million Americans will work remotely.
What do these statistics have to do with volunteering? Research over the years indicates volunteering can help negate feelings of loneliness. Results from one study of 10,000 volunteers in the United Kingdom showed two-thirds of the field agreeing that volunteering helped them feel less isolated, particularly among participants aged 18-35. 
Feeling a lack of social connection and even a newfound lack of opportunities to interact with others can be combatted by volunteering. It can even be a great way to make new friends with like-minded people.
3. Volunteering provides a sense of purpose and accomplishment
Knowing that someone else is smiling because of your efforts should lead to a real boost in self-esteem. Servicing others provides volunteers with a sense of meaning and appreciation – both given and received. Particularly among older adults, giving back can result in a greater sense of purpose. A study of older adults found that participation in community service was more strongly correlated with life satisfaction for retirees than for those individuals who continued to work for pay. You also may not realize it, but you’re developing important interpersonal skills while volunteering. These are skills that could translate to your career.

How to start volunteering

Want to give back but don’t know where to start? Explore these options. 
  • Be a mentor. There are more than 3,500 children in Michigan waiting to be matched with a caring adult. Only an hour a week can make a huge impact on the life of a child. Visit the mentoring connector at this link.
  • Get involved with Michigan’s Community Service Commissions youth volunteer initiatives.
  • Visit serve.gov, an online portal that helps people, groups and organizations find volunteer opportunities in your community. You can search by ZIP code and keyword and find out whether local hospitals, homeless shelters animal shelters, faith communities, senior living homes, nonprofit environmental organizations, etc. are in need of volunteers.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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