Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that “life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” Those words from 1957 are still relevant in our world full of inequities and people in need. And interestingly, helping others — particularly volunteering — also appears to boomerang back to us with significant health and wellness benefits.
But how can you volunteer if you’re homebound due to the pandemic, disability, or transportation issues? Take heart: there are lots of opportunities, and many reasons to consider them.
Research suggests that volunteering is good for the mind and body. For example, a Harvard study of 13,000 older adults, published in the August 2020 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that people who volunteered at least two hours per week said they were not only happier, more active, and more optimistic than people who didn’t volunteer, but also less depressed, hopeless, or lonely. Volunteers reported more contact with friends and more purpose in life than the non-volunteers. Volunteers even had greater longevity by the end of the four-year study period: they were 40% less likely to die prematurely than non-volunteers.
The findings echo other studies that associate volunteering with health, wellness, or longevity.
Why is volunteering so powerful?
A combination of the following factors may make volunteering good for us.
You gain a sense of purpose. “You feel like you’re part of a broader cause, contributing to a process that helps a lot of people and making a difference in the world. That’s enormously energizing. It enhances the motivation to get out of bed and be active,” says sociologist Dr. Matthew Lee, an author of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine study and a research director at Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program.
People who have a sense of purpose also have greater levels of physical activity, better sleep quality, healthier diets, and lower rates of cardiovascular disease.
You connect with others. “When you interact with other people, even if it’s not in person, you’re likely to build relationships and feel more engaged,” Lee points out.
You get a break from your own problems. “You stop worrying about your own situation when you start helping others improve theirs,” Lee says.
It develops your sense of virtue. “By design, human beings want to become better people,” Lee notes. “When we nurture others, we flourish and grow.”
It just feels good. “Feeling like you’re making a contribution lights up reward centers in the brain and gives you the ‘helper’s high,’ the warm feeling you get when you’re helping others. It leads to a strong sense of personal well-being and positive emotions,” Lee says.
Ways to pitch in
Even if you can’t leave home, you can still volunteer your time for a good cause. Here are some ideas.
Volunteer online. Thanks to computers, it’s common to be a “virtual” volunteer. For example, you can provide administrative, accounting, or marketing assistance via computer, or you can tutor or mentor someone via video chat. There are opportunities in the arts, business, education, health, medicine, and many other fields. Think about your life experience and who might benefit from it.
Volunteer by phone. Telephones are still important in volunteer work. For example, you can use a phone to help raise money for nonprofits, answer a hotline, or make check-in calls to homebound adults.
To find opportunities:
- Call an organization you like and ask if it has any “remote” or virtual volunteer opportunities.
- Search online for volunteering opportunities in your ZIP code on websites such as Volunteer Match (www.volunteermatch.org/virtual) or Idealist (www.idealist.org).
If you can leave your home but you’re not ready to be part of a group, consider assisting neighbors. Someone you know may need help getting the daily mail or paper, walking a dog, preparing meals, helping in their garden, or taking garbage to the curb.
Or get creative and come up with other ways to contribute. For example: “If you were an art teacher, offer free Zoom classes. If you like writing, send cards or letters to soldiers, nursing home residents, or children in hospitals to brighten their day,” Lee suggests.
Will helping from home confer the same benefits as volunteering in person? “In many ways, it should. You’re still connecting deeply with people and being part of something larger than yourself that’s meaningful to you. Distance doesn’t diminish the story that you become part of,” Lee says.
And you get to answer the profound question Dr. King posed so long ago.
Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren
Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. 1 Chronicles 29:11 NIV
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Mark 12:30 NIV
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21 NIV
So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” Zechariah 4:6 NIV
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18 NIV
For who is God besides the Lord? And who is the Rock except our God? Psalm 18:31 NIV
It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory; it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them. Psalm 44:3 NIV
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. Romans 1:20 NIV
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. Colossians 2:9-10 NIV
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