As a physician of internal medicine, I’m always trying to provide my patients with the best advice to help them live their best lives. I often find myself suggesting patients take steps to manage their stress. One of the most surprisingly effective ways to enhance happiness and decrease stress is through volunteer work — that’s why I promote the idea that volunteering and being of service is a terrific way to improve your quality of life, and the lives of those in your community. In fact, the notion that “good things happen to good people” may actually be the result of helping those who are in need. There is scientific evidence which explains why altruistic behavior can have a positive impact on a person’s mood. In fact, chemicals in the brain attributed to “happiness” are measurably higher after volunteer work.
Here are a few of the reasons why helping others makes us happy:
Gives you purpose
Volunteering provides a sense of purpose and responsibility. It’s human nature to want to feel needed, and what better way to satisfy that need than by volunteering? A study from 2010 revealed that quality friendships where needs are mutually met contribute to overall happiness. When someone feels needed by others and the feeling is reciprocated, they tend to be happier.
Giving back increases self-esteem. Knowing that you’re doing your part in helping others makes you feel good about yourself, and that’s something no one can take away from you. It not only increases self-esteem, but it also allows you to become more aware of the world around you.
We know that volunteering has a great benefit of self-fulfillment, which also plays a role in finding who you are as a person. By giving back and helping others, you can reveal your true passion in life, while at the same time inspiring others to “pay it forward.”
Decreased feelings of loneliness
Surrounding yourself with people you empathize with decreases loneliness. A study done in 2013 showed that the more interaction people were getting from Facebook rather than people face to face, the lonelier and more depressed they became.
Living in a world where technology is advancing, it gets easier for people to interact primarily through social media. Volunteering upends that notion and gives us the opportunity to develop interpersonal relationships. When you volunteer, you’re able to work in teams to solve problems and give back.
A study done by AARP in 2010 unearthed that 42.6 million adults over the age of 45 suffer from chronic loneliness. Combatting this begins with getting to know the people in your community, learning their stories to grow a bond that can lead to a strong friendship.
Helping is rewarding
Knowing that you are a part of the reason why someone else’s life is just a little bit better creates a sense of accomplishment. Doing something for the greater good and setting an example for those who look up to you can help you feel fulfilled. Putting a smile on someone’s face or making someone laugh is rewarding enough, but in terms of knowledge and experience, you gain more than you give.
The reward center of the brain has a chemical reaction very similar to when someone experiences happiness: oxytocin diminishes stress, and dopamine along with endorphins create a natural “helper’s high.” This feeling can actually become addictive, as your body can start to crave the rewarding feeling. Being part of an organization that helps others may make you feel happier — and it can very well lead to you wanting to continue to help those who are in need.
Increased sense of gratitude
Research shows that gratitude can not only make you happier, but also healthier. It can make you appreciate the small things that life has to offer. Listening to the stories of those you help makes you put your life into perspective, and suddenly your major problems aren’t so bad — always remember, things could be worse. Volunteering makes a huge difference in the lives of those you are helping and may improve the overall quality of your own life.
Gratitude from volunteering can in fact make you healthier. It can improve your physical and mental health. Volunteering allows you to stay active, whether it be working with others or individually, you’ll always be busy. Collaborating with others allows us to think differently, shifting our perspective. The gratitude that derives from helping others can also lower your blood pressure, improve your immune system, and decrease stress levels.
You never know who you may meet and what you might learn. While volunteering, the opportunities are endless, and no good deed goes unnoticed. Find an organization that interests you and start your journey today!