By Don Ingwerson
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away…and it turns out, so does volunteering.” (Ryan Scott)
Most of us like to be involved in helping others, but it’s sometimes difficult to find opportunities to help others in a meaningful way. For example, when I offered to help local high school students, it didn’t go so well. I went to meet my first student to see how I could help him, and he told me that he had so many volunteers coming in to help him that he felt he didn’t get to spend enough time in the classroom with the other students and he would rather spend more time there.
My wife, on the other hand, has found a “match made in heaven” with her volunteering effort. A local community group asked my wife if she would MC their performances, which she loves doing, and the musicians appreciated her bringing focus to their own volunteer musical efforts.
These and many other experiences (some successful and some not so successful) got me exploring what it was about volunteering that made it a health-giving activity. Businesses with volunteer programs also showed benefits that helped in key areas, such as productivity, engagement, and synergy.
This was interesting to me, because I have never found a volunteer program that I truly enjoyed, and I wanted to find out what I was missing.
An article by Ryan Scott, “Doing Good Keeps the Doctor Away,” really caught my attention. 94% of those volunteering reported that they had improved moods. Over 75% of the United Health Group employees engaged in volunteer programs had less stress and the employees felt more calm and peaceful. 96% of those who volunteered felt that volunteerism enriched their sense of purpose in life. According to this 2010 study from United Health Group, the country’s most diversified health care company, volunteering is closely linked to improved health and in some cases even helps people manage chronic conditions.
I think several of these findings relate to a recent lecture I attended by noted integrative medicine expert, Dr. Andrew Weil. He described the term “infectious happiness” as an emotion that can spread from person to person. Weil said, “…there is no question that who you choose to associate with can raise or lower your spirits, make you happy or sad, calm or anxious, comfortable or uncomfortable.” When you volunteer, you feel good about what you are doing, and you then have the opportunity to pass these good feelings on to those you are helping and to other volunteers.
Although all my volunteer efforts haven’t always been productive or satisfying, I have found that when my volunteer efforts have dealt with personal counseling, meditation, and serving my fellow man, I feel more purposeful, energetic, and with a sense of satisfaction. According to Dr. Weil, these qualities are certainly health giving.
One way I am able to cultivate a real spirit of happiness is to pray to be guided to where my efforts are needed. I’ve found that prayer gives me a sense of being connected to a greater force such as the Divine. A biblical statement from Jesus I find helpful is: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” To me, “all these things” includes activities that will bless me and others. Those blessings could include a sense being helpful, sharing in a meaningful manner, and responding to another’s need in order for him/her to reach personal goals. These qualities when expressed in the spirit of giving and aiding are health-giving.
With this encouraging view of volunteering, I’m able to expand my concept of where I’m needed and I will be able to share a sense of happiness and health no matter what type of service I am providing.