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Enrich Your Life with Community

Create a wider friendship circle by volunteering, giving back, joining in, and helping others.

If there’s one virtue this past year has taught us, it’s gratitude. Many of us have a renewed appreciation for our health, financial stability, and community. As such, motivation may be higher than ever to give back with volunteer work.

“Research in the past year further cemented our belief that volunteering improves happiness,” says James Coupe, PsyD, psychologist in private practice and clinical director of St. John Vianney Center, a residential center in Downingtown, PA.

Volunteering fosters mindfulness, too. “Feeling support from others may increase one’s motivation to engage in mindfulness practice,” Coupe says. Volunteering itself can be mindful in that it forces you to focus on the here and now. “And if people in the community engage in mindfulness, it presents as a positive role model for others to follow,” he says.

Here are some of the many mental and physical health benefits of volunteering:

Volunteering allows you to take ownership of your efforts. Because you don’t rely on a paycheck for volunteer work, it frees you up to spend time on issues and causes you feel strongly about, be they helping children with disabilities, sheltering animals, or feeding the homeless.

Volunteering can extend your life. In a 2019 study published in Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found those who lacked a strong life purpose had twice the mortality rate of those who did have a purpose. Researchers found this link between life purpose and death existed regardless of wealth, race, education level, and gender. It also proved to be a more powerful determinant of longevity than smoking drinking, or regular exercise.

Volunteering improves mental health. “Across psychological studies there is significant evidence that connection to others is good for emotional health,” Coupe says. This is particularly true when they are people with whom we share values, he adds. “Humans have a need for interpersonal connection, and community engagement is a healthy way to meet that need,” he says. So, it’s not surprising that volunteers are less likely to be depressed, especially after age 65. This is because volunteering boosts social interaction and helps build a support system, both of which are good for emotional health.

Volunteering reduces stress. Because it broadens your social network, volunteering buffers stress and lowers disease risk. Devoting time to others helps build a sense of meaning and appreciation, which further decreases emotional stress.

Volunteering can relieve pain. People who volunteer report less physical pain than those who do not volunteer. They are also more likely to go to the doctor for preventive wellness and take better care of themselves overall. This is probably due in part to (positive) peer pressure from fellow healthy volunteers.

So, now that you know some of the physical and mental health benefits of volunteering, here are ideas for specific ways you can donate your time:

  • Mentor a youth in foster care. Check out https://nationalcasagal.org/ to find out how.
  • Volunteer to tutor young people in a subject you love, or assist adults in learning English as a second language. Your local school district or literacy center is a good place to start.
  • Volunteer to pick produce at a local farm.
  • If you have elderly or disabled neighbors, offer to shop for their groceries and supplies.
  • Spend time at a local animal shelter, walking dogs or petting cats.
  • Volunteer at local senior center. Jobs range from taking seniors for a walk to sitting and talking with them to more hands-on care.
  • Donate time in a hospital. There’s a long list of ways you can help in a health care setting, from spending time with hospice patients to prescreening blood donors to working as a cashier in the hospital gift shop.
  • Coach or referee a local youth sports team. Choose a sport you played or have always enjoyed watching as a spectator.
  • Serve as a docent for your favorite local museum or gallery.
  • Collect books and deliver them to shelters, community centers, daycares, and schools.
  • Sign up for charity walks or 5Ks, such as Relay for Life or Race for the Cure. As a bonus, you’ll get in shape!
  • Volunteer to pick up trash on Earth Day and at other times throughout the year.
  • Become a mentor to a student through BigBrothers or BigSisters. https://www.bbbs.org/
  • Work with an individual with special needs through Special Olympics (https://www.specialolympics.org/) or Best Buddies (https://www.bestbuddies.org/).
  • Deliver food to people who cannot leave their homes through Meals on Wheels. https://www.mealsonwheelsamerica.org/
  • Volunteer with an environmental organization to do things like water testing, trail maintenance, or animal management.

To search for additional volunteer opportunities in your area or to look for specific volunteer positions in the above categories, check out https://www.volunteermatch.org/.

No matter how you choose to donate your time, volunteering is a win-win. As you contribute to causes in your community, you will boost your physical and emotional health, support your mindfulness practice, and make a difference in others’ lives, too.

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