Volunteering: What’s in it for me?

By September 2, 2014Personal Development

Most of us work long hours in our jobs and are tired at the end of the day and are somewhat protective of our free time so why should we give up our time to do things as a volunteer? There are actually many reasons ranging from practical advantages to more psychologically-based explanations.

Volunteering in areas where we have training provides us with a unique, non-routine way to apply our skills for the benefit of others or society at large. This is seen to be both a way to “give back” to society for the privileges we have received through education or training (you don’t think your tuition really pays for your whole education do you?) and it allows us to experience applying our skills in unique and novel settings. In return volunteering can give us greater appreciation of our regular jobs and serve to reinforce the importance of our skills.

If we are not doing things that we feel good about it is hard to feel good about ourselves. If a person sits and thinks continually “am I happy” the only conclusion is “no” because we are sitting and thinking rather than being a meaningful part of the world. With the rise of the “overindulged generation” who expect everything to come quickly and easily there will also likely be a rise in depression as achievement or attainment without effort tends to be meaningless.

Clearly, making a difference in the quality of life of others allows us to at times see at a personal level that we are capable of positively impacting individuals or groups around us and that this leads to increased happiness. One study done recently entitled “does happiness lead to success” found that individuals living a happy life tend to be healthier, have more meaningful relationships and feel more fulfilled at work while the concept that success leads to happiness was much harder to prove.

People who volunteer and offer their time to help others also tend to be more grateful and people who are more grateful also have more positive life experiences. A study with university students found that the half of the class who completed the sentence “I wish…” 20 times on a page found them to be less happy afterwards while the other half of the class who completed the sentence “I am glad I’m not…” 20 times on a page were happier afterwards.

Volunteering can also give us interesting and unique life experiences and allows us to interact with individuals we might not otherwise meet.

Volunteering also allows us to be more multidimensional. Just because we are good at our chosen career does not mean that volunteer work has to be in that field. Taking on a volunteer role at a labour level, such as helping with the local festival, or at an organizational level, such as being on the board or committee for a cause we are interested in, allows us to expand our interests and gain new experiences. It can also provide travel experiences in a safe manner for individuals, couples or groups as is seen in the increased trend towards “voluntourism”. Even large corporations such as Disney recognizes the importance in society of volunteers by linking volunteering for certain organizations with “payment” with free amusement park passes.

Volunteer experiences not only “look good” on a resume but are also seen to be a valid way to explore new careers for those thinking of career moves.

So to summarize, the answer to the question what’s in it for me can be answered that it can lead to success, happiness, increased health, more meaningful or new personal relationships, a way to explore your interests and even a pathway into a new career. Oh yes, there is also the little detail of making a difference in an individual’s life.

Stephen Carter, Ph.D.
Registered Psychologist
Lifelong Volunteer (coaching, parent associations, provincial and national psychology organizations, community services boards, theatre boards, service clubs, fundraising, mentoring…)