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“How can I help?” It’s a simple and surprisingly powerful question. Ask it, and you could change someone’s life. And in the process, you could wind up transforming your own. The basic act of volunteering – whether by lending a hand at a local soup kitchen, mentoring a child, or helping with a community clean-up project – can enrich your life in ways you might not have predicted.

It’s a known fact that volunteering makes you feel good, but did you realize that it can also offer tangible physical and mental health benefits? In Allan Luks’s book, The Healing Power of Doing Good: The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others, the author documents a clear cause-and-effect relationship between helping and good health. He concludes that “helping contributes to the maintenance of good health, and it can diminish the effect of diseases and disorders, both serious and minor, psychological and physical.” According to Luks, the more frequently one volunteers, the more significant health benefits one can expect to enjoy.

Luks isn’t alone in his findings. Canadian researchers have also deduced that volunteering can “improve self-esteem, reduce heart rates and blood pressure, increase endorphin production, enhance immune systems, buffer the impact of stress and combat social isolation.” Considering all these benefits, it’s a wonder that volunteer opportunities are still so easy to come by. While some volunteer work (such as hospice care) requires a considerable amount of training and skill, in many other cases, volunteer positions can be had just for the asking. And those who volunteer regularly know that no matter how simple or how complex the volunteer task is, the payoffs are very real.

The Physical and Mental Benefits of Giving Back

A 10-year study of the physical, health and social activities of 2,700 men in Tecumseh, Mich., found that those who did regular volunteer work had death rates two-and-a-half times lower than those who didn’t. A study at Cornell University documented a similar trend for women – those who volunteer are 16 percent less likely to experience a major illness during the course of their lifetime than those who do not.

One possible reason behind these findings: Volunteering connects you with other people in a positive social context. Over the past 30 years, research has shown that people with strong social support systems tend to be in overall better health than people who spend the majority of their time alone. In fact, isolated people are more likely to die at a younger age than those who have strong social connections.

You know that “runner’s high” you sometimes experience after a good workout? It’s possible to get a similar feeling – often referred to by experts as a “helper’s high” – from volunteering!

If the promise of avoiding death-by-isolation isn’t reason enough for you to sign up for a worthy cause, there’s no shortage of other benefits. For example, you know that “runner’s high” you sometimes experience after a good workout? It’s possible to get a similar feeling – often referred to by experts as a “helper’s high” – from volunteering! Rob Schultz, an athlete and regular volunteer for his local Humane Society, confirms this effect. “Regardless of how tired I am before I volunteer, I always feel energized during my shift, and especially afterwards. There’s something very rewarding about helping others.”

Recent studies attribute such “volunteering highs” to a flood of endorphins – those marvelous brain chemicals that bring you so many other feel-good sensations. Apparently, volunteering boosts endorphin levels, thereby bringing on mild euphoria, relieving stress and pain, boosting immunity and possibly even helping to lower blood pressure. In a survey of older adults, 90 percent reported they suffered fewer colds and stomachaches when they volunteered at least once a week.

How Volunteering Enhances Mental Well-being and Relieves Stress

Helping out in your community can benefit you mentally as well. According to the Red Cross, in the case of older adults, an active schedule and frequent interaction with others helps buffer the stress of aging. Research shows that people over age 60 are more likely to maintain their intellectual abilities and avoid depression when they feel they are having a positive impact on someone else’s life.

Volunteering can also help relieve all kinds of career, family and personal stress. First, a different setting and a new group of peers can give you a fresh perspective on things – especially your own daily trials and tribulations. (There’s nothing like volunteering at a homeless shelter to remind you that your remodeling problems really aren’t so bad.) Second, a change of scene sometimes helps you appreciate all you have to offer. “It’s refreshing to use the skills from my regular job in a different capacity, and especially nice when it means I’m able to help people who really need it,” says Brian Boese, a volunteer for Big Brothers/Big Sisters of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Tips for a Fulfilling Volunteer Experience

The key to creating a successful volunteer experience is doing something that brings out the best in you. So don’t be afraid to try several volunteer activities in order to find one (or more) that you love. You can tutor a child, help out at a crisis nursery, teach an adult-literacy group, offer pro-bono professional services to a non-profit, coach a sport, teach a skill-building workshop for at-risk kids, visit homebound seniors or hospital patients, deliver meals or give rides to people in need, shelter an animal, help stock a food pantry, serve at a soup kitchen, build homes for low-income families, clean up littered areas, provide supplies to a homeless shelter or teach a CPR class.

Don’t be afraid to try several volunteer activities in order to find one (or more) that you love.

The important thing is to do something. Volunteering doesn’t have to take a lot of time (you can set your schedule, after all), and helping others is a great way to get a whole new lease on life. Physically, mentally and spiritually, there is perhaps no “self-improvement” effort that rewards you as richly as doing something important for someone else.

Best of all, if you choose a cause that holds special meaning or interest for you – one that you believe in, that lets you use cherished skills, or that touches you in some way – it may very well become an important fixture in your life. So go forth. Share your gifts. And do good work.

This article has been updated. It was originally published online on January 1, 2002.

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