An article in the newsletter from my local hospital caught my eye yesterday. It told about some hospital employees who started a program to volunteer to help patients during meal times. Many patients, especially the elderly, need a little extra help with cutting their food or opening containers. When a family member can’t be there to help them, hospital employees (from all departments) volunteer to step in, providing assistance, encouragement and companionship for one to two hours a week.
By giving the gift of their time and attention, these employees are also receiving many benefits. There is a significant relationship between volunteering and good health. People who regularly volunteer generally live longer, function better, and have lower rates of depression as they get older than people who don’t volunteer.
Volunteers also report more satisfaction with their lives, higher self-esteem, higher levels of happiness and a greater sense of being in control of their lives. In addition, being a volunteer can sometimes involve people in a new social network, with all of the stress-buffering benefits that social support provides.
Why do some people volunteer and others don’t? Sometimes it feels like giving something to others – whether it is our time, our money or our love – means that we will have less of that for ourselves. When we let go of that habit of clinging to things, we learn that to give is to receive, and to receive is to give.
As a practical matter, studies have shown that one big difference between those who volunteer and those who don’t is time spent watching TV. Active volunteers watch far less television. So while it may seem that we don’t have time to volunteer, the reality may be that we only need to give up one of our “low-value” activities.
Helping others can also put people into new social roles; this can give them a sense of meaning and purpose in life. In that context, practicing generosity can be considered a spiritual practice. While that may sound surprising, if you think of spirituality as being connected to something larger than yourself, it makes sense. Practicing generosity helps us see how we are all connected and interdependent. It breaks down the barriers of time, space, age, race or socioeconomic status that may falsely separate us.
If you want to be a volunteer, but aren’t sure how to get started, look into programs in your city or county. Many local governments have web sites devoted to volunteer needs, some keep a roster of volunteers to call upon, and others will match you according to your interests. There are usually short term, long term and one-time opportunities available in your community.
The Corporation for National & Community Service is also a good resource.