The unexpected benefits of volunteering—for you, the volunteer

Doing charity work might make you happier than adding tens of thousands of dollars to your salary.

Michela Ravasio | Stocksy United

It’s certainly true that money can’t buy you happiness, but a new study suggests that volunteering might give it to you, free of charge.

Researchers at the London School of Economics examined the relationship between volunteering and measures of happiness in American adults. The study found “the more people volunteered, the happier they were.”

“With people who never volunteered, the odds of being ‘very happy’ rose 7% among those who volunteer monthly and 12% for people who volunteer every two to four weeks. Among weekly volunteers, 16% felt very happy—a hike in happiness comparable to having an income of $75,000–$100,000 versus $20,000,” said the researchers. So serving others often affects the volunteer’s mood in a positive way. When we concentrate on other people, our own problems recede. Sadness eases, and joy takes its place.

MORE TO READ: The giving way to happiness: A how-to guide

I’m happy to say that I’ve experienced this phenomenon first hand. I currently volunteer with World Relief, an organization which resettles refugees. Sometimes I file paperwork in the office, and on other afternoons, I help newly-arrived refugees do errands (shopping for school uniforms, medicines, or groceries). I never regret the hours I spend at the agency. In the process, I learn about resilience and courage in the face of grave danger. Experiencing the refugees’ gratitude for every small thing is touching and convicting. I realize how much I take for granted, and how fortunate I’ve been. Nothing is more fulfilling than giving what I have to help people who have lost so much. I leave feeling proud of my work, and happy that I’ve done it.

God speaks to us in situations outside our everyday experiences.”

Volunteer Shaela Manross has served as an English as a Second Language teacher years. She says, “One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned through volunteering is that people are people, no matter their culture, socio-economic status, physical ability/disability or even age. At a cursory glance, my life may look different from theirs, but many things are the same. It’s that truth that binds us together.”

And for some, the benefits are even more straightforward: one woman, volunteer Katy McGarr, says that volunteering made her happier because it made her a more social person. “When I volunteered with animals at the SPCA, it made my life better. Knowing I was needed made me get out of the house, and helping with adoptions forced me to talk to strangers. For an introvert, both of those things are big accomplishments!”

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But those social skills and valuable lessons of empathy aren’t just important for adults, they’re good for young kids to learn, too. So why not spread the happiness around by volunteering as a family, like mother ad volunteer Michele Nietert has done with her little ones? “My children and I delivered meals to the elderly when they were young. I enjoyed seeing the people’s faces light up when they opened the door, and the kids shouted in their little voices: ‘Meals on Wheels!’ I loved that I was able to share the joy of serving others with them. “

When we volunteer—by ourselves or with our friends and family members—we also open our hearts to unique experiences, and learn new things. Radio host and volunteer Rosa Hopkins explains, “Many times, those who need help in some way are able to impart a spiritual gift. God speaks to us in situations outside our everyday experiences.” Hopkins adds, “We put our faith in action when we need Him for everything we do. Our walk with God will grow as a result, and we will be prepared for further work down the road.”

When we perform tasks for which we feel unprepared, we rely on God in a fresh way.”

Volunteer Janie Simms agrees: “I used to volunteer at a food pantry for families. I loved watching the women thinking about the meals they could put together. Slowly, they selected each item they needed. Those women will never know how they affected me in a positive way. It made me more understanding and much more willing to give.”

Volunteering grows our faith, too. When we perform tasks for which we feel unprepared (like helping out a refugee or caring for an ill person), we rely on God in a fresh way. He stretches us, and in that stretching, we mature in our faith.

Donating our time is just one way we can show gratitude to God for all the blessings He’s showered on us. And in His economy, we are blessed when we sacrifice. It’s true what the scriptures teach: it is better to give than receive.

Dena Dyer
Dena Dyer
Dena's work has appeared in dozens of publications, including Reader's Digest, Woman's World, Family Circle, Redbook, Today's Christian Woman, and more. She's also the author or co-author of eight books; her newest release (written with her husband of 21 years) is the humorous devotional book, Love at First Fight: 52 Story-Based Meditations for Married Couples.

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