February 26, 2019

The amazing psychology of helping people

Volunteering can make you feel better physically and mentally—and it's contagious. So what are you waiting for?

Photo of volunteers planting a garden in Las Vegas by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Volunteering, it does a body good. But according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey from 2016, only an estimated 1 in 4 Americans spend time volunteering each year, while the median time per year spent volunteering was 52 hours.

The most popular volunteering activity is collecting and handing out food, with tutoring and fundraising also making the list. But no matter how you spend your volunteer hours, the benefits are numerous.

Most people know that volunteering provides a source of self-esteem and socialization, along with skills that can benefit their careers. But helping others can make you happy by providing a sense of purpose and satisfaction that goes beyond the momentary happiness you get from watching a favorite movie or eating a candy bar.

Just a few hours helping others can alleviate stress and anxiety, and reduce feelings of depression. Even if you just donate funds to a worthy cause, you will still feel a mood boost.

So why is this? It might seem like adding an extra responsibility would increase stress. Research suggests, however that the de-stressing effects are due to an increase in the hormone Oxytocin that occurs in some people when they volunteer. More Oxytocin means a better ability to handle the common stresses of life.

It’s not just our mind that gets a boost, though. Helping others has physical health benefits as well.

Depending on the type of volunteer work, giving back can provide a boost in physical activity. But all kinds of volunteering can provide physical health benefits. One study found that adults over 50 who volunteered at least 200 hours a year had a lower risk of hypertension, while another discovered that in some cases volunteering was associated with relief from chronic pain.

Another study by the American Psychological Association proves the old adage “only the good die young” wrong when it reported that volunteering regularly, “can have a significant impact on life span.”

It might feel even better to know that helping others is contagious.

If you start volunteering at a local organization or perform a good deed, it can cause a chain reaction of altruistic acts throughout your community. This means that your our family, friends and neighbors might also experience a mental and physical boost.

So, how can you get started volunteering? Choose a cause that really speaks to you and start small. There are an estimated 1.5 million nonprofits in the country. Check out sites like VolunteerMatch and JustServe—they make it easy to find opportunities to volunteer in your neighborhood.


Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the associate editor of The Renewal Project.
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