“Give to others”. Sound like Sunday School advice? Think again. Give to others is now one of the five recommended ‘Steps to Mental Wellbeing‘ promoted by the UK’s National Health Service. “Acts such as volunteering at your local community centre can improve your mental wellbeing,” claims the NHS website.
Can it be true? Is volunteering really a worthwhile intervention for boosting your mood?
According to a recent research project at Exeter Medical School that collated evidence from 40 different studies over the last 20 years, yes. They, too, concluded that volunteering led to lower depression and increased wellbeing.
But how does it help? What does volunteering do, exactly, that can lead to you feeling better?
Five ways volunteering makes your moods better
1. Volunteering involves the power of social connection.
Despite our modern lives that seem focussed on the ‘cult of self’, humans are social animals who need interaction to flourish. Without it, you risk feeling misunderstood, severe loneliness, and low self-confidence.
In fact lack of social connectedness has long been proven to be a cause for depression, such as in this study from the University of Minnesota.
Volunteering, on the other hand, has us interacting with others in valuable ways and being appreciated.
And the sense of connection volunteering generates might help your depression in a surprising way if you are already in therapy. The above study also found that the more connected you felt, the more likely it was you’d get results from your therapy sessions.
2. Volunteering can create a change in thought patterns.
Depression causes increasingly negative thoughts known as ‘thinking errors‘ or ‘cognitive distortions’ in psychology.
These thoughts can be debilitating. According to Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) this is because they set off a cycle. Thoughts create feelings and bodily sensations which trigger actions. And if you are depressed, this action might be to sit on the couch all day feeling you have no energy to do anything, or it can be a negative action, like telling your best friend to go away, that sends you into an even lower place.
Volunteering gets you up and out the door and taking a positive action – helping others.CBT believes that pushing ourselves into more positive action like this is one way to break the cycle of negative thoughts and low moods, a method known as ‘behavioural intervention’.
Volunteering also has the added benefit of changing your focus, even if it’s just for an hour or so. This means you get a much needed break from your negative thoughts and might even find yourself experiencing positive ones (I’m enjoying helping this other person, I have shareable skills I didn’t even realise I had, my life isn’t so bad really, etc). And positive thoughts like these can change your cycle of thoughts, emotions, and actions into an upward, instead of downward, spiral.
3. Volunteering changes your perspective.
Look at the image to the right .What do you see? An old woman, or a young lady? Both are there, pending on your personal perspective.
And life can be just the same – sometimes all you need to do is change the angle you are looking at things (your perspective) and new, more positive thoughts as well as better opportunities open for you.
When you are depressed, though, it can be very hard to feel motivated to change perspective by yourself. Your thinking can feel so foggy it’s nigh impossible.
Volunteering does the work for you, showing you different perspectives on life by having you interacting with people you might not encounter otherwise and learning about the way they see and live their lives.This can cause a natural shift in the way you see and live yours. It might rather be a perspective shift on yourself like, ‘I do have useful skills to share’, ‘I really can change others lives’, ‘I have more power than I realised’.
4. Volunteering has been linked to a raise in self-esteem.
In a comprehensive review looking at volunteering in the UK there was a prevalence of people reporting that it had elevated their self-esteem.
More research needs to be done as to why this is, although logic would dictate that volunteering can teach you new skills, improve the ones you already have, help you feel useful and recognise your inner resources, give you more purpose, and also improve your interrelating with others. All of which are bound to help your confidence.
And the better you feel about yourself, the more you see your true value, the harder it is to feel low.
5. Volunteering leads to better overall health.
The connection between mind and body has long been suspected. In some ways, it’s logic – we all feel grumpy when we are sick, and if we are in better health, it’s easier to be in a better mood. So can feeling good from volunteering increase physical health?
A four-year study carried out at Carnegie Mellon university on adults over 50 who volunteered found that those who volunteered for 200 or more hours a year were less likely to develop high blood pressure and more likely to enjoy psychological wellbeing.
But what came first, the wellbeing, or the better health? It’s a tricky one for studies to unpack, and more evidence is required. But perhaps the question should really be, why not volunteer and enjoy better levels of both?
As a bonus, volunteering is also thought to not only reduce stress, but also to increase longevity. Remember that research overview done at the University of Exeter? It also reported a 22 per cent reduction in the risk of dying.
Don’t have time to volunteer?
You don’t have to sign up to a community program to give your time and energy to others. There is nothing wrong with working small acts of generosity into your daily life.
As the NHS puts it, “even the smallest act can count, whether it’s a smile, a thank you or a kind word.”
From taking a few minutes to talk to the woman who works at your local shop or the homeless man in front of your place of employment, to committing to smiling at a stranger a day, in what way can you volunteer some of your time and energy to others on a regular basis?
Have you seen a positive result on your moods from volunteering? Share below and inspire others.
Images by Department of Foreign Affairs Australia, San Jose Library, Daniel Thornton