Suffice it to say that the world in which I grew up was dramatically different from the world today. I was born in 1945, grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, and started working full time in the 1970s. I pride myself on not living in the past, clinging to nostalgic memories to comfort me. We need to live each day, one day at a time; we mustn’t be mired in the past or thinking too far into the aspirational future.
The only constant is change. We all know that to be true — and we experience it daily. Comparatively, “back in the day,” change was slower. In every aspect, life evolved in a more gradual manner. Today, by contrast, change in some form is daily — and sometime even more frequent than that! This translates to a hectic, sometimes frantic existence. It also equates to the urgent, often uneasy feeling of “needing” immediate responses that, until the turn of the century, we just didn’t experience.
There never seems to be enough time in a day, week or month simply to do our jobs, let alone to do anything else. Research has shown that there are unintended (and often unrecognized) negative consequences of having to immediately and constantly react to, and adapt to, change. Our health, our relationships and our professional lives all evince the negative effects. So, when I write about the issue of volunteering, I wouldn’t be surprised if most readers bring up having a lack of time to do anything more than they already are. I get it…I really do.
However, there are things to consider before you flip the channel. My position is simple: Volunteering for something that is meaningful to you and others can be a win-win situation. You personally win and the cause or organization for which you’re volunteering benefits. If you stay tuned for the entire article, the reasoning should become clear.
But first, an aside: The following is based on research from the American Psychological Association (APA), as well as books and research work from Dr. Stephen Trzeciak and Dr. Anthony Mazzarelli, authors of Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference. A data-driven book, it shows that doctors who are compassionate are associated with patients having better outcomes. Their new book is called Wonder Drug: 7 Scientifically Proven Ways that Serving Others is the Best Medicine for Yourself.
Proven Benefits of Volunteering
Research conclusively shows that volunteering provides many proven benefits both for mental health and physical health.
- Volunteering helps counteract stress, anger and anxiety. The social-contact aspect of helping and working with others can have a positive effect on your psychological well-being. There is no better stress reliever than a meaningful connection with another person.
- Volunteering fights depression. Volunteering establishes regular contact with others and helps provide a solid support system. This goes a long way toward protecting you from depression.
- Volunteering can make you happier. Scientists measuring hormones and brain activity have discovered that being helpful to others delivers immense pleasure. Human beings are hard-wired in their DNA to give to others. In short, the more that we give, the happier that we’ll feel.
- Volunteering boosts self-confidence. When you’re doing good for others, it provides a natural sense of accomplishment. Your volunteer role can give you a sense of pride and identity. And the better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to have a positive view of your life and your goals’ attainability.
- Volunteering produces a sense of purpose. You can find new meaning and direction in your life by helping others. Whatever your “life situation” might be, volunteering can help you take your mind off your own concerns — at least momentarily — while keeping you mentally stimulated and adding more zest to your life.
- Volunteering promotes and helps maintain physical health. Recent medical studies provide data showing that those who volunteer have a lower premature mortality rate than those who do not. Volunteers tend to be more physical active, find it easier to cope with everyday tasks, are less likely to develop high blood pressure and have better thinking skills. Volunteering can also lessen symptoms of chronic pain and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Consider the Time Commitment
Hopefully, you have looked at the benefits I’ve just set forth, and you’re now motivated to at least consider adding a volunteering component to your lifestyle commitments. This invites the question of how much time can you afford to devote and where you might volunteer. These decisions, along with upfront due diligence, are critical to a successful experience.
How much time should you volunteer? Volunteering doesn’t have to take over your life to be beneficial. Research shows that just two to three hours per week — that’s about 100 hours a year — can confer real benefit both to you personally and to your selected cause or organization. The caveat here is to think of volunteering as a commitment to be met. Think of it as a contract and personal obligation, not something to be entered into lightly. After all, people will be depending on you.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of volunteer work. A common denominator is that more people sign up to volunteer than actually end up participating. For some, it begins and (regretfully) ends as a self-centered situation — in short, the notoriety or “glamour” of just being listed as a volunteer, committee member or board member. But, for others, the benefits of actually following through are, indeed, win-win. And they come from a dedication to meaningful participation. I don’t intend to be harsh, but, if you volunteer, please participate. If you don’t want to participate, don’t volunteer. The important thing is to volunteer only the amount of time that you’re comfortable with. Volunteering should feel like a rewarding hobby, not another chore you must check off your to-do list.
Where to Volunteer
Now that you have some idea of the time you’re willing to commit to volunteering, there is the decision as to where to volunteer. There is no lack of opportunity to do so. Here are a few that are most visible:
- community service
- church service and outreach
- industry related
If you’re donating your valuable time, it’s important that you enjoy it and reap the benefit of your activities. Signing up for something and only later discovering that there are “dealbreakers” is not a good place to be. Sometimes, an opportunity looks great on paper, but the reality is quite different. You will end up avoiding what you belatedly realized was unpleasant, and you’ll end up not living up to your commitment. To make sure that your volunteer “position” is a good fit, I suggest conducting some due diligence upfront.
In particular, I suggest the following:
- Ask questions. You want to make sure that the experience is right for your skills, your goals and the time you want to spend. Begin by asking yourself the following: What causes are important to you? Do you prefer to work alone or as part of a team? Are you better behind the scenes, or do you prefer to take a more visible role? Then, with those answers in mind, explore the cause or organization to see if it’s a fit.
- Know what’s expected. You should be comfortable with the organization and understand the time commitment. Consider starting small so you don’t overcommit yourself at first. Give yourself some flexibility to change your focus, if needed.
- If necessary, make a change. Don’t force yourself to stick with a bad fit or feel compelled to remain in a volunteer role you dislike. Talk to the organization about changing your focus. Alternatively, look for a different organization that’s a better fit.
- Enjoy yourself. The best volunteer experiences benefit both the volunteer and the beneficiary organization. If you’re not enjoying yourself, ask yourself why. Is it the tasks that you’re performing or the people with whom you’re working? Alternatively, are you uncomfortable simply because the situation is new and unfamiliar? Pinpointing what’s bothering you can help you decide how to proceed. If the fit is not right and enjoyment is not achievable, then extricate yourself. Nobody can benefit in a situation like that.
What You Want to Achieve
Ask yourself if there’s something specific you want to do or achieve as a volunteer. To find a volunteer position that’s right for you, look for organizations or causes whose scope matches your personality, skill set and interests.
Ultimately, volunteering is about doing something for the greater good…about doing something bigger than you are as an individual. President Kennedy’s inaugural address inspired us to see the importance of civic action and public service. His historic words, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” challenged every American to contribute in some way to the public good.
I’ll add the concept of “paying it forward” to the mix. The simplest way to define the expression “pay it forward” is this: When someone does something good for you, instead of paying that person back directly, you instead pass on a good deed to another person.
We live in the richest country in the world. Our commercial AV and digital signage industries are (and have been) flourishing. We are well positioned to pay forward our good fortune.
I want to wrap up with yet another allusion to President Kennedy, who paraphrased a well-known biblical saying, “To whom much is given, much will be required.” Give some thought to volunteering, and then make good on that commitment of time. A common theme for those of us who volunteer and honor that time commitment is that we receive more out of it than we provide. The greater good? You bet!
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