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Volunteering Good for Your Health

When I volunteer for a cause, or just lend a helping hand to a friend in need, I feel really good inside. A “feeling” is one thing, but knowing for sure that something great happens to you when you volunteer is something else. Researcher Alan Luks knows for a fact that volunteers gain tremendous benefits from the act of giving, like a reduction in stress and depression, a decrease in physical pain, and a rush of endorphins that makes people literally feel great inside.

In a study of more than 3,000 volunteers from more than 20 charitable organizations across America, Luks analyzed how the volunteers felt both during and after conducting their acts of kindness. Luks, who wrote the book “The Healing Power of Doing Good: The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others,” was able to directly link a feeling of good health with volunteering.

One of the most unique things Luks found was what he coined as “helper’s high.” This refers to the rush of endorphins the body releases during and after performing an act of volunteerism. Endorphins are the body’s natural pain killers, and are often released during acts of great pleasure, like when someone wins the lottery. Once endorphins are released, they help the body experience a sustained feeling of calm that can increase overall emotional health.

Luks’ research, conducted in the late 1980s, was so eye-opening that it encouraged a number of other individuals to explore the topic further. In 2004, Linda P. Fried, M.D., director of the Center on Aging and Health at Johns Hopkins Medicine, conducted a two-year research study of older volunteers ages 60 to 86. Compared to a control group of older individuals who did not volunteer regularly, Fried found that those who did volunteer had significantly increased physical, cognitive and social activity. She determined that volunteering can actually slow the aging process.

In a study conducted in 2006, Jordan Grafman, Ph.D., a senior investigator for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, conducted MRIs on individuals when offered money for themselves, and when offered money to donate to charity. Grafman’s research found that the parts of the brain that are activated when money is given to an individual are also activated when money is donated. Therefore, you can make the assumption that giving money away feels as good as winning money.

The benefits of volunteering are particularly strong for young people. Young volunteers learn how to respect differences and how to appreciate their own families and circumstances. Teenagers who volunteer regularly at a nursing home or shelter learn to become trustworthy as others in the community come to rely on them. In addition, they get wonderful on-the-job skills training. And there's been a lot of research into how volunteering prevents risky behaviors in teens, and can help increase academic success in teens already considered at-risk.

So, we’re seeing scientific proof that giving to others yields benefits not just for the receiver, but the giver. But, really, haven't we always known that giving is better than getting? Being kind to others is as old as biblical times and the story of the Good Samaritan.

Consider this. When a person loses a loved one, oftentimes they volunteer as a way to work through their grief. You’ll read about parents who start charitable organizations to help others going through the same type of tragedies that they went through. Many times, the loved ones left behind will rally the public and the government to change laws and behaviors to avoid the same kind of pain they felt during their tragedy.

This happened in 1996 when Maureen Kanka’s daughter Megan was raped and killed by a known sex offender. Overcome with grief and anger, Kanka created Megan’s Law and the world is much better for it. And, knowing that she had something to do with saving the lives of other little girls, Mrs. Kanka is better for it too.

Here’s the point – if you’re feeling blue, get out there and help someone in need. It gets your mind off of your own pain and forces you to count your blessings. Do something, anything, and do it not just to help others, but to help yourself. You’ll be glad that you did.

Volunteering is not just good for the one who gets, but for the one who gives too.

Allan Luks' Research
Dr. Jordan Grafmans’ Research
Antidote to Learned Helplessness: Empowering Youth Through Service
For Information on Where to Volunteer in Your Area - 211.org
Volunteer Match



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