The science behind why volunteering to help others makes you happier
You don’t need to be an angel of altruism to get into volunteer work.
It’s totally fine if you’re helping others in part for selfish reasons – you’re still doing some good.
And a major reason to help others – as selfish as it may seem – is that doing so is proven to make you happier.
When we do good for others, it does us good right back, basically.
‘Research shows that we are happiest when we’re doing for other people,’ Laurie Santos, a Professor of Psychology at Yale University who runs the hugely popular Science Of Wellbeing course, tells Metro.co.uk.
‘People who do more volunteer work tend to be happier than those that don’t.
‘This is a universal phenomenon. In fact, pro-social behavior seems to, across most cultures, improve people’s happiness.’
Most of us have felt those warm and fuzzy feelings after performing a good deed.
Social psychologist Naomi Eisenberger explains that there’s a neurological cause for that ‘warm glow’.
‘When we help another person – whether it’s holding a partner’s hand as they go through something painful or donating money to a charity, we see “reward-related” activation in the brain,’ Naomi notes. ‘So, regions of our brain, like the ventral striatum, that process basic rewards – such as eating tasty food or winning money – also activate when we are doing something nice for someone else.
‘These acts of kindness also typically lead to positive feelings or what is sometimes referred to as the “warm glow” of giving.’
And unlike other ‘highs’, such as eating an entire chocolate cake or engaging in risky behaviours, the feelgood nature of volunteering doesn’t have negative side effects or a comedown.
Instead, you keep feeling good long after the initial altruistic action.
‘The research so far shows that the actions that we do for other people can have relatively long standing happiness effects,’ notes Laurie. ‘They’re the kind of thing that can boost your wellbeing, even when you think back on them.’
Naomi adds: ‘We aren’t as quick to adapt or “get used to” the positive feelings associated with giving to others.
‘So, when looking at how subjects feel when they spend the same amount of money (e.g. $5) on themselves for five consecutive days vs. when they spend that money on someone else for days, the happiness that people felt in response to these acts declined more rapidly when people were spending money on themselves compared to when they were spending money others.
‘In other words, the happiness associated with giving to others didn’t seem to “get old” in the same way that was seen for giving to oneself.’
There’s the intrinsic feelgood glow of having done something beneficial for others, but the benefits don’t stop there. There are also more practical, obvious pros.
Volunteering can also help to tackle loneliness, and give us a sense of purpose that we might not be getting from our paid work.
Counselling Directory member Shelley Treacher explains: ‘Similar to paid employment, volunteer work can give a sense of routine and structure to our day or week, as well as affording us a sense of achievement and purpose.
‘However, because we have none of the financial considerations that often keep us in unfulfilling paid employment, we have less stress and more freedom to pursue other interests through the volunteer work that we choose.’
So basically, we get the good bits of working – the sense of purpose and keeping busy – but free of all the pressures that come with a salaried job.
Shelley adds: ‘Given the rising levels of disconnection and loneliness in an increasingly online world, volunteer work can benefit everyone involved and, as social creatures, we need social interaction.
‘Helping others can often help distract us from our own problems and foster gratitude for what we do have.’
Getting involved in volunteer work can also help us learn new skills and improve our sense of self-worth, and gives us regular challenges that keep us motivated.
All of this is magic for our mental states, boosting happiness and tackling symptoms of mental health issues.
But while the benefits of volunteering are huge, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean you should pack in your usual work and go all in on volunteering every minute of the day.
Yes, doing volunteer work can make us happier, but if it’s at the expense of all the other key bits of mental and physical health, it can do the opposite. You have to take time for yourself, too.
And on a practical note, unless you’re in a very financially privileged position, you do also need to keep making money – otherwise that post-volunteer glow might be outweighed by the stress of cashflow worries.
Choosing the right volunteer work for you is also crucial.
‘Balance is key here,’ says Shelley. ‘When choosing what volunteer work to do, make sure you can comfortably commit to what is being asked of you so that it remains pleasurable rather than another source of stress in your often busy life.
‘If we’ve overcommitted or overstretched ourselves in terms of knowledge and skills or the time that we have available to volunteer, we’re likely to start to feel stressed.
‘Striking a balance between pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and playing to your strengths will also help.
‘While volunteer work that brings you into contact with others is likely to benefit your mental wellbeing more, be discerning. If you experience social anxiety, perhaps groupwork isn’t for you!’
The way we frame volunteer work in our minds is important, too.
Firstly, try to be conscious of the good you’re doing. Really take it in.
‘You have to frame whatever you’re doing as helping other people,’ says Laurie. ‘You have to take a moment to notice that what you’re doing is really affecting the lives of other people.
‘Take a moment to think about the people who would be helped by the activities you’re doing.’
Continuing on that theme, make sure you recognise that your work, even if it feels small in comparison to others’, does have an impact. Don’t get caught in the ‘I should be doing more’ guilt trap.
‘We may feel guilty for not being able to help everyone so it’s important to focus on the people that we can and are already helping,’ says Shelley. ‘As the expression goes, “To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world”.
‘You’re one person and can’t help everyone. Focus instead on the difference you are making to your community.’
Do what you can, even if it seems small – and notice the impact it has not only on others, but on your own happiness. Feel that glow.
‘We often think that there are these real constraints to volunteer work,’ Laurie tells us. ‘Like: I should only do it if I have a lot of free time or a lot of money.
‘What the science shows is that we have these surprising misconceptions about the power of doing for others.
‘We think that doing a little won’t help that much, but the science shows that it helps us much more than we expect.
‘Doing for others is a real path to happiness.’
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Volunteers’ Week takes place 1-7 June and highlights the amazing ways people can give back and help others. To get involved click here.
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