Guest Blog: Road to Happiness: Can Volunteering Make Us Happy?

Guest Blog: Road to Happiness: Can Volunteering Make Us Happy?

Dr. Tarak Vasavada (fourth from right) at a volunteer event to appreciate nurses.

As part of PRMS’ ongoing commitment to mental health, we are pleased to feature Tarak Vasavada, MD, President-Elect of the Indo-American Psychiatric Association, Medical Director of Huntsville Hospital Behavior Health Services, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UAB School of Medicine and creator of HappyMindMD website for healthcare workers. Dr. Vasavada shares more about the benefits of volunteering and how it can make us happier and healthier.

Americans are top of the list for volunteering; almost 42% of respondents from the United States in a Lonely Planet survey said they had joined a volunteer program at some point. According to the 2018 Volunteering in America report, 30.3% of adults from the U.S. volunteered with at least one organization that year. The National Center for Biotechnology Information estimates that around 40% of physicians volunteer in the community or health field.

Numerous studies by the Population Reference Bureau document that active and engaged older people remain in better health. For example, a small-scale experiment shows that low-income minority seniors volunteering in public elementary schools outscored their nonparticipating counterparts in both physical strength and cognitive ability (Fried et al. 2004). Studies show that older adults who volunteer live longer and have better physical and mental health than counterparts who do not volunteer.

Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Lawrence Robinson share four ways to feel healthier and happier by volunteering in a article, and I share their list and my thoughts below:

  1. Volunteering connects you to others. Loneliness can kill us, and we human beings love socializing. Volunteering for a cause you care about will connect you to like-minded people. It can develop friendships with people who care about helping others - when you need help, they can be good resources. Volunteering allows you to practice and build social skills because you regularly meet people with common interests. Once you have momentum, branching out and making more friends and contacts is more accessible. Volunteering as a couple or as a family can also enhance the meaning of life. Volunteering supports your community, and living in a healthy and resourceful community contributes to your well-being. 
  1. Volunteering is good for your mind and body. Connecting, volunteering, and seeing the meaning of your work can help reduce your stress, anxiety, and depression. By measuring hormones and brain activity, researchers have discovered that being helpful to others delivers immense pleasure. Human beings are hard-wired to give to others. The more we offer, the happier we feel. Your role as a volunteer can also give you a sense of pride and identity, and it brings a positive view of your life and future. Volunteering helps you stay physically healthy.A study by Sara Konrath, Andrea Fuhrel-Forbis, Alina Lou, and Stephanie Brown, Motives for Volunteering Are Associated With Mortality Risk in Older Adults, found that volunteers have a lower mortality rate than those who do not. Older volunteers tend to walk more, find it easier to cope with everyday tasks and are less likely to develop high blood pressure. They live longer and have less chance of developing cognitive problems. Volunteering can also lessen chronic pain symptoms and reduce the risk of heart disease.
  1. Volunteering can advance your career. Volunteering allows you to practice essential workplace skills, such as teamwork, communication, problem-solving, project planning, task management, and organization. Volunteering will enable you to try a new career without making a long-term commitment and expose you to professional organizations or internships that could benefit your career.
  1. Volunteering brings fun and meaning to your life. Volunteering is a fun and easy way to explore your interests and passions. Volunteer work can be meaningful, exciting, relaxing, and energizing. It can be an escape from your day-to-day work routine, school, or family commitments.

Whatever your cause, volunteering can make you and your community stronger. And for many physicians, it is a second life that helps us to support our patients and communities further.

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