While many of the habits and values we hold dear were taught to us by our families, that wasn’t the case for me with volunteering. Nobody in my family volunteered growing up. It just wasn’t part of our family culture.
Yet when I was sixteen, I found myself through a random set of circumstances volunteering at the Special Olympics. My brother had special needs but his were too severe for him to participate. But when I was asked to volunteer as a “hugger,” I jumped at the chance. Being a hugger is exactly what it sounds like. When the athlete crossed the finish line, I was there to offer up congratulations and hug them. For me, this was the best job in the world! Everyone hugged me. Everyone smiled at me. Everyone appreciated me and couldn’t wait to see me! In my own microcosm of sixteen year old angst, I experienced true happiness and joy on that finish line.
At sixteen, I realized what so many others know about volunteering: it took me out of my own problems.
In college, I volunteered at an at-risk youth shelter. Again I found a place I loved to be! For two years I got to hang out with kids and be their (positive influence) friend. If they wanted to play pool, we did. Shoot hoops? I tried (they laughed). I always looked forward to my days at the shelter.
Once again, I could step out of my life, my exams, my relationship issues, and other worries, and just be present with these kids who were happy to have me there. I was helping others and myself at the same time!
In a world that is increasingly facing the stress of overwhelm and depression, finding something that takes you into the present moment and out of your head is priceless.
Studies suggest that there are a number of benefits to volunteering and reasons for doing it:
- To help others
- To make a difference
- To meet new people
- To develop new skills
- To contribute to society
In fact, volunteering may not just be good for your mental health. It can also be good for your physical health. A Carnegie Mellon study found that 200 hours of volunteering per year correlated with lower blood pressure.
According to Psychology Today, the top reasons to volunteer are:
- To live longer and be healthier
- To establish strong relationships
- To improve your career
- To help society
- To give you a sense of purpose
I want to suggest another way of looking at volunteering and why I loved it so much. Mindfulness and meditation are often touted as ways to improve your mental and physical health. And yet for many of us they feel too difficult or intimidating. Volunteering, on the other hand, asks very little of you other than to show up and help out. Anyone can volunteer. And in return you get something just as beneficial as meditation: your own form of mindfulness. A way to forget all of your problems and be fully immersed in the present moment.
So the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or depressed by your problems, you might want to try calling up a local charity and offering to volunteer. You might just find it’s the antidote to your worries.