When I was going through one of the lowest points in my life; when depression had its iron grip on me, its hands pressed firmly over my eyes so that I couldn’t see a way back to happiness, there were three words that changed everything:
“See you tomorrow.”
Determined that I had to do something, anything meaningful, I’d started volunteering at a local non-for-profit in my community. At the end of the day, when the work was done and I was heading out to go home, the other people who worked there would wave, and say goodbye, and say “See you tomorrow.”
After a year of locking myself away in my small flat, hardly leaving, going days without even speaking to another person, this small sentence was a lighthouse to me, after such a long time lost in a dark ocean. To me it was a sentence that said ‘you matter’, ‘you’re valued here’. It was a sentence that said ‘if you don’t come back tomorrow, you will be missed.’
I’m currently volunteering in Portugal, at Life Beyond the Horizon. That old bleak flat is 8 years behind me, and some 2000 miles away, and I’ve neer been happier. A non-for-profit organisation such as Life Beyond the Horizon couldn’t exist without the support of volunteers. And for the volunteers, there’s a whole ocean of benefits.
So, when anybody tells me they’re having a rough time, or they’re generally just feeling unfulfilled in life, I tell them to volunteer.
In a study published this year in the Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers examined data from nearly 70,000 research participants in the United Kingdom, who received surveys about their volunteering habits and their mental health, including their everyday quality of life and stress levels, every two years from 1996 to 2014.
It was found that people who volunteer rated their overall health as better than those who didn’t volunteer, and reported higher satisfaction with their quality of life.
The study measured participants’ levels of wellbeing before volunteering, and after. The evidence is that people who volunteered became happier over time.
But why does it work so well? According to Ricky Lawton, associate director at Simetrica Research Consultancy, there are many reasons why.
Volunteering appears to be innately rewarding. When we’re helping others, we experience what researchers call a warm glow of giving. Unlike most experiences that make us happy, we never become immune to the good feeling of giving to others.
Volunteering also makes us feel connected to other people. This is particularly true for those who have become isolated, whether through illness (physical or mental) or old age, or being stuck in a routine where meeting and connecting with new people is a rarity.
And obviously, volunteering can be a way to learn new skills and experience new opportunities. When I volunteered, I had the opportunity to learn about gardening. Now, this is not something I ever plan to turn into a career, but what it has given me is the skills to look after my own garden, which I never could before. This leaves me with not just a worthwhile skill but a new hobby to love and nurture.
This point is especially relevant to young adults who are still figuring out who they’d like to be, what avenues of vocation they’d like to explore and how they’d like to grow as they move forward in life.
And that word community is extremely important. Many find that the word community means little to them, because they don’t know how to engage with it. Volunteering allows you to connect and make your community a better place. Not only does this expand your support network and increase your social skills, but there’s a special sense of purpose that comes with making the world a better place, starting on your own doorstep.
I was incredibly shy when I began volunteering, and now know that I can attribute the experiences I’ve had in the volunteering sector to my increased sense of self assurance, esteem, confidence and ability to make new and lasting relationships.
Volunteering is proven to help counteract the effects of stress, anger, and anxiety.
The social aspects of volunteering can have a massive effect on your overall psychological well-being. Positive communication even releases a chemical called Oxytocin in our bodies, which is known as the ‘hug hormone.’
Volunteering helps fight depression. For the reasons listed above, from having a sense of purpose to learning skills and keeping busy, Volunteering protects you against depression by increasing the positive activities in your life.
Volunteering makes you feel happy. Remember the warm glow of giving? In the measurement of hormones and brain activity, science tells us that being helpful to others delivers profound pleasure.
Volunteering increases self-esteem and self-confidence. Being of benefit to your community and increasing your exposure to new scenarios and experiences is like fertiliser to your self esteem and sense of confidence. You feel pride, your sense of identity increases and you gain a positive outlook on your current circumstances and for the future.
Volunteering gives a sense of purpose. Anyone at any time can feel a little lost in life. Sometimes an unsatisfying job, a break up of a relationship, a bad experience with mental health or even just a dullness of routine can leave us asking what it’s all about. For many, volunteering puts that zest back into life.
Volunteering helps you keep physically healthy. Studies have found that volunteering lowers your mortality rate, compared to not volunteering. Volunteers tend to engage in more exercise activities, and are less likely to develop high blood pressure, and have better thinking skills.
Like anything new, it’s understandable that someone might be nervous about starting volunteering. How much commitment is expected? What if I don’t enjoy it? What if my circumstances change and I can’t get involved anymore?
But don’t worry. Volunteering is not employment. You are not expected to slave away, or completely dedicate your life to it. I’ve seen people turn up for volunteering every single day, and know that they’ve done it that way for years, without fail. I’ve also known people who volunteer once a week, or now and then with no apparent schedule. I’ve known people who just volunteer at one place for years, and people who volunteer at several different places and are always looking for new places to volunteer. There’s no rules, and nobody is held in higher regard than anyone else. If you turn up, even once, people will be happy to have you there.
Hopefully you’ve heard by now about all of the incredible ways people began to help each other during COVID. This means that volunteering doesn’t only have to be a physical place you attend, but exists in the virtual sphere as well.
There’s an app called Be My Eyes where you can volunteer to help blind and low vision people through live video calls. 7cups is an opportunity to volunteer to lend a kind ear to someone in crisis. And if you want to start small, Colour a Smile simply asks for donations of colourful pictures to give to senior citizens and those who need cheering up. You can even have your dog listen while a child reads a book online with you.
And in terms of physical volunteering opportunities, they are absolutely everywhere. There’s organisations for keeping parks clean, for growing local vegetables, for putting on local events. There’s non-for-profit marketing organisations and non-for-profit mapping companies and even community pubs where you can volunteer. There’s volunteering opportunities in your own town and there’s ones abroad, where your accommodation and food and sometimes even travel expenses are paid for.
When people ask me how I battled depression, I tell them I volunteered. I think of the experiences I’ve had and continue to have as some of the best of my life. And in a way, I’m grateful for the pain I went through, as it brought me to where I am today, it allowed me to discover volunteering. Knowing that I had people who wanted me to continue volunteering for them, waiting to wish me good morning everyday was profoundly important for my recovery. So if you’re reading this, I recommend with all my heart to try it. You can start small, or you can jump in with both feet. There’s so many options. And if you feel lost at sea, know that there’s a whole horizon of lighthouses waiting to welcome you back to solid ground.