This year, National Volunteer Week runs from 20 – 26 May, with thousands of events being held across the country to say thank you to the six million Australians who volunteer their time to help others. In the lead-up to this important celebration week, Esme Barratt, a Community Wellbeing Project Officer at the City of Adelaide, shares some research-based insights into why volunteering could be just as good for you as it is for others.
The 2019 theme for National Volunteer Week is ‘Making a World of Difference’ and it’s true that volunteers bring enormous benefit to our community and our beautiful planet, but have you ever thought about the benefits for volunteers themselves?
Well, there’s a growing body of evidence that volunteering provides health and wellbeing benefits for the close to one-in-three Australians who give their time to help others.
For starters, volunteers are physically healthier. Volunteering has been found to result in similar benefits to vigorous exercise or meditation. Called a ‘helpers high’, studies have shown that those who volunteer feel benefits due to the body releasing endorphins during positive social contact with others. [i]
A Carnegie Mellon University study found adults over 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart attack, stroke, heart failure and metabolic syndrome [ii] and an American study found volunteers were at lower risk of mortality. [iii]
The United Health Care report ‘Doing Good is Good for You’ (2017) found the connection between volunteering and mental health to be just as dramatic. Almost all volunteers noted an improvement in mood, as well as lower stress levels, and improved self-esteem. Volunteers said they felt calmer and more peaceful and had more energy than those who had not volunteered in the past year. Not surprisingly, positive impacts on sleep have also been found.
CEO of Volunteering SA & NT, Evelyn O’Loughlin is a strong advocate for the benefits of volunteering.
“Volunteering is usually thought of in terms of the benefits to the community, but the benefits to the individual are broad ranging,” said Evelyn. “On a personal level, volunteering allows me to make a positive difference for others and to be connected to my community, even around full-time work commitments”.
Research has shown that most volunteers report an enriched sense of purpose in life and having learned valuable things about themselves from being a volunteer. In fact, volunteers have consistently higher scores (by about 15 per cent) than non-volunteers on nine well-established measures of emotional well-being including personal independence, capacity for rich interpersonal relationships and overall satisfaction with their life. [iv]
Volunteering is also a great way to increase social connections and make friends [v] and can contribute to career development or an ongoing sense of purpose following retirement. Through volunteering you can explore new fields, develop new skills, gather experience, improve communication skills, and increase cultural sensitivity. Volunteering also makes it easier to build a network of contacts or find a job and can help develop leadership skills. [vi]
Evelyn O’Loughlin highlights that one of the best examples of the benefits of volunteers lie in the founding members of Volunteering SA & NT.
“Joy Noble and Mavis Reynolds are now both in their mid-90’s and still leading active lives and giving back to the community. They are the living embodiment of the benefits of volunteering.”
[i] Nib Foundation (2017) ‘4 Surprising Health Benefits of Volunteering’ www.nib.com.au [ii] Carnegie Mellon University (2013). “Volunteering reduces risk of hypertension in older adults.” Science Daily. [iii] Health Psychology (2011) ‘Motives for volunteering are Associated with Mortality Risk in Older Adults, American Psychological Association [iv] United Health Care (2017), “Doing Good is Good for You” [v] Dr. Saundra Jain and Dr. Rakesh Jain (2016) “Be a Star in Your Own Life by Improving Wellness Through Social Connectedness”, WILD Wellness [vi] American Journal of Health Promotion (February 2017) “The Art of Health Promotion ideas for improving health outcomes”, Sara. S. Johnson PhD