If you’ve ever served Thanksgiving dinner at a shelter, rang the bell for the Salvation Army, tied your sneakers for a charity run/walk, or donated to a favorite nonprofit, you probably remember the moment of feeling like you did something good. Sociologists call this feeling of contentment “helpful happiness.”
It’s Good for Your Body, Toses Stephen J. Post, Ph.D., author hidden gifts of help. “We are beginning to discover that, physiologically, there is something going on in this process to help others, causing people not only to feel happier, but also to report better health,” Post says.
Back in 1988, an analysis of 1,700 female volunteers found that 68% said they felt calmer after volunteering, similar to what they got from exercise. Decades later, studies have used MRI scans to track brain activity to explain why. In one small study of 19 people, simply canceling a check for charity lit up the brain’s median limbic reward system, sending feel-good chemicals in the body. Post says that when this generosity is practiced head-on, levels of oxytocin (the calming hormone released when a mother breastfeeds her baby) and pain-relieving endorphins spike, too.
When we shift our minds away from our own problems to focus on the needs of others, levels of stress hormones like cortisol drop. One study followed 1,654 older adults over 4 years old. During that time, those who volunteered for at least 200 hours a year were 40% less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers.
The evolutionary reason may partly explain why our reward centers light up when we help another person. Post says working in a team could have helped us survive as a species.
How to choose a volunteer activity
You would love to help. But with so many great organizations and causes out there, how do you get started?
Find opportunities that are meaningful to you and that fit your interests and personality. Do you want to use your business skills? Would you rather do something active outdoors, like cleaning a garden or helping build a driveway, or a quieter indoor activity like helping out with a literacy organization? Would you rather volunteer with a large group of people or focus on smaller projects?
Also, keep your schedule in mind. You can decide if you want to volunteer on a regular basis or just every now and then.
These are the best ways to get the most out of volunteering, according to Post:
Help others deal with something you’ve experienced yourself. Studies show that people recovering from alcohol use disorders are more likely to remain vigilant when helping others recover from a drinking problem. Similarly, some people with chronic pain reported less pain when, as trained volunteers, they helped someone with the same condition.
Do what you are good at. When volunteers feel they are on their way, the experience can backfire and add to their stress. Choose a volunteer opportunity where you can make a real contribution.
it means that. Those who contribute to the organizations they care about tend to see stronger physical responses. “Motivation is important,” Post says. “When people are truly altruistic in their actions, they have a better response.”