When people ask me what I do in my free time, the first thing out of my mouth is almost invariably, “community service.” I’ve been volunteering through various organizations since I was six years old. First, it was Girl Scouts, which I stuck with for eleven years, going so far as to earn my Gold Award my senior year of high school. When I was fifteen I joined a group called FISH, a Presbyterian youth group which was open to all faiths and which made yearly trips down to Pittsburgh in order to help local volunteers with the homeless situation there. Now in college, I’m a member of a student org called ServeState, which has me doing more volunteering than I’ve ever done in my life. In fact, I’ve been elected service coordinator for this semester, meaning it’s my responsibility to plan and run the multitude of service events our group is involved in each week.
Outside of school, this work dominates my life; between planning each venture, participating in the actual events, and following up on our group’s performance, I spend around ten hours each week focussed solely on community service. It makes keeping up with school work a constant battle (I’m taking nineteen credits and two honors-level classes), and my social life outside my club rarely extends beyond some nice chats, which occur during power-walks between whatever projects I’m working on at the time.
Sometimes it can be beyond exhausting. But I wouldn’t trade out of this responsibility if you paid me. Here’s why:
I know what I’m about to say is bound to sound abominably cliche, but I’ll run the risk. Service has changed my life. It has so in a multitude of ways. I’m sure you’ve heard of people returning from mission trips or volunteering excursions with stories about their “new lust for life” and how “their eyes were opened to the world.” Kind of melodramatic, right? Wrong. In my experience, the act of serving those less fortunate than you does just that: opens you up to a fuller, healthier life. But this time, you don’t have to take a starry-eyed volunteer’s word for it. This time, I come bearing proof.
In 2013, a study released by UnitedHealth Group and the Optum Institute has shown volunteering to be linked to better mental, emotional, and even physical health. “These findings,” the study states, “show that the benefits of volunteering help strengthen communities and have real, measurable health benefits for the people who volunteer” (UnitedHealth Group). The study sorts these positive benefits into four categories.
The first is, quite generally, health. People who volunteer regularly simply report feeling healthier and happier (Optum Health). I can’t help but relate. A hard day of service–whether it’s washing dishes at a soup kitchen, doing yard work for a nonprofit, or painting the walls of a homeless shelter–might tire you out, but the exercise always leaves behind a satiated feeling. Not only did you just get a good workout, but you also experience the added feeling of accomplishment that comes with helping to make a community stronger.
This in particular may assist in explaining the second benefit: lower levels of stress. Those who volunteer often report a better ability to manage and minimize stress (UnitedHealth Group). This comes as no surprise, especially when you consider how exercise triggers the release of endorphins, the “feel good” hormones (WebMD). But even people who participate in forms of service with no physical activity involved exhibit less signs of stress than those who don’t volunteer at all. And it probably has a lot to do with the next benefit of service.
Volunteers often feel a deeper connection to their communities and to those around them, often leading them to derive a sense of purpose from their work. This purpose almost inevitably leads to greater self confidence, as well as an enthusiastic work ethic (HelpGuide.org). I know the purpose I gained while volunteering throughout my childhood has influenced me in particular, pushing me to pursue my current career goal of working to improve the poorer communities of North Africa. The feeling of pride and pleasure one feels after visibly boosting the quality of someone’s life, even just a little, is enough to keep you coming back. Each experience builds on one another until service becomes a lifestyle, and the things you learn throughout your work are firmly ingrained in your personal identity.
The things you learn as you volunteer have a lot to do with the fourth benefit, which is engagement. Simply by working with many different organizations, volunteers tend to learn a lot more about their community than those who do not (HelpGuide.org). And some of the things you learn can be quite enlightening. I often talk about my trips to Pittsburgh with FISH as one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. As we worked with the network of homeless shelters throughout the city, I remember talking to several of the residents. I learned a lot about them–how they lost their homes, what their childhood was like, and how they were getting by now when they had so little. I learned that most of them had worked, and continue to work, extremely hard, and that they still had dreams for a better future–a sharp contrast to the American stereotype that casts homeless people as lazy freeloaders mooching off of taxpayer money. Had I not volunteered in Pittsburgh, I don’t think I ever would have understood the extent of the disadvantage some experience in our country, simply by being born into the wrong neighborhood.
There are more benefits to service work. I’m sure I could write a book about it, if I had the time. But a few things are certain:
Service makes you healthier. Service makes you happier. Service makes you more knowledgeable about the world around you, introduces you to some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet, and reacquaints us to one of the most simple pleasures of being human; watching your community blossom from the work you did with your own two hands. So try it for yourself. I’m sure you’ll find that those who lose themselves in service are the ones who have the most to gain.
“Exercise and Depression.” WebMD. WebMD, LLC, 2015. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.
“Study Reveals Volunteering Makes Positive Impact on People’s Health.” News Medical. AZO Network, 19 June, 2013. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.
“Volunteering and its Surprising Benefits.” HelpGuide.org. Helpguide.org, n.d. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.