Giving and Receiving All at Once: The Cycle of Volunteering

One of the best things about the United States is that we are a giving country. In 2011 alone, we gave more than 290 billion dollars to charitable causes. We not only give our money, but also our time and talents. About 64.3 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2010 and September 2011. This nation was founded by people seeking to escape persecution. We continue to look out for the most vulnerable, in part by volunteering.

Volunteering has long been connected to matters of faith, public well-being, and altruism. Most of us recognize that we have been given many gifts and blessings. We look for ways to return the favor by simply doing a good deed or dedicating ourselves to particular causes. In Vanderburgh and Posey County alone, volunteers built over 415 houses (as of November 2012) through Habitat for Humanity since 1984. In addition, volunteers made upgrades to seventy-six more homes to improve  energy efficiency and air quality. Clearly, organizations such as Habitat for Humanity can have a life-changing impact on people and the communities in which they reside.

Beyond the value of doing the right thing, research increasingly shows that volunteering may do more for the volunteer than we ever knew. Many people will say that helping others makes them feel better and appreciate what they have. We give, and gain something in return. But what if volunteering actually works to improve our psychological well-being and our physical health over the long-term? In fact, studies seem to consistently support this. It’s not that people who feel good simply volunteer more. Rather, the more you volunteer, the better you feel. This seems to hold true for youth too. Large scales studies of adolescents indicate that the more they volunteer, the more their outcomes improve. Those same individuals prove less likely to take risks, more likely to thrive, and better able to interact with adults outside their family. These effects represent not just fleeting feelings of positivity, but sustained changes in behavior.

All of this raises another question. We know that helping others less fortunate is a good thing to do. But what accounts for the apparent positive effect on volunteers? Well, researchers have uncovered a few possible causes. One, it appears that volunteering results in eudaimonic [yoo-dey-mon-ik] well-being, which should be distinguished from hedonic well-being. Hedonic well-being supposes that happiness comes from seeking out pleasurable activities (and avoiding pain), such as eating something sweet or winning a prize. Eudaimonic well-being is rooted in the belief that happiness comes from participating in activities that involve a deeper purpose or meaning. Hedonic activities can lead us to feel good, but only eudaimonic activities, such as volunteering, can lead us to feel good about ourselves. This is the essence of eudiamonic well-being. Actions focused on helping others or our world help us feel that we matter.

The concept of mattering was introduced in 1981 by Morris Rosenberg and Claire McCullough. They defined it as the perception that, to some degree, we are a significant part of the world around us – that people notice us, care that we exist, and value us. Multiple studies indicate that mattering plays a key role in why volunteering leads to better well-being. When we feel valued and needed by other people, we feel better about ourselves.

There is another important piece to all this. Findings indicate that those who are least socially integrated end up benefitting the most from volunteering. It appears that those who are isolated, have few close relationships, and struggle to be part of a social network are the very ones whose lives can be changed dramatically by giving their time to others. It all seems to make sense. In our lifetime, we may not always have a choice about to whom we matter. We may be rejected by those we desire. We may be accepted by those of which we tire. But we can always choose to matter, at least to someone.

So this made me wonder. If in a world full of potential disappointments and fleeting bliss, I could provide my children with opportunities to feel more valued, more important, healthier, and more confident, why not make this a priority? Our kids do many things to have fun and feel good. What if we started building in more chances to help others, and help them feel good about themselves? To me, it just sounds like a great opportunity to give and receive all at once.

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