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Volunteering has some surprising health benefits. Here's how to find the right project for you.

Five tips for finding a volunteer project that will give back as much to you as you give it.
Studies have linked volunteering with better mental health, including more life satisfaction.
Studies have linked volunteering with better mental health, including more life satisfaction. Sara Pezzoni / The Free Press via AP

We all have that friend who’s got her (or his) life together. She has a great job. He’s got a loving partner. She works out. He makes his own yogurt. And the cherry on top: she tutors disadvantaged 2nd-graders twice a week.

What’s her secret? Experts say it might in fact be that time your friend sets aside for volunteering.

“There’s quite a bit of work on the benefits of volunteering, probably because in some ways it’s sort of the perfect activity,” says Nancy Morrow-Howell, MSW, PhD, director of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging and a professor of social policy at Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, who researches the health benefits of volunteering.

“It seems to produce health for the volunteer. And it’s contributing to the greater social good, because generally volunteers are working with organizations on some sort of social mission,” she says. “It’s a win-win.”

Studies have linked volunteering with better mental health, including more life satisfaction, having a stronger sense of purpose, having greater self-esteem, having a sense of increased personal control, having less social isolation, having slower cognitive decline, and showing fewer depressive symptoms.

And evidence suggests volunteering has benefits for physical health, too.

A 2013 study analyzed data from 1,654 individuals who participated in the 2006 and 2010 waves of the national Health and Retirement Study that asked questions about volunteering and measured participants’ blood pressure when the survey was conducted and four years later. Controlling for things like age, gender, ethnicity, education and other factors, the individuals who reported volunteering at least 200 hours in the 12 months leading up to the survey had a 40 percent lower risk of having high blood pressure four years later than those that had volunteered less.

(In these types of studies “volunteering” is usually defined as some sort of service or helping activity done in a discretionary way outside of the home organized by an agency, Morrow-Howell says.)

Former President Jimmy Carter works with other volunteers on a Habitat for Humanity project.Robert Franklin / South Bend Tribune via AP

To date, we’re not aware of studies linking volunteering with yogurt-making ability. But the point is that volunteering may increase well-being overall because it usually increases activity across the board, from physical activity to social activity to cognitive activity, Morrow-Howell says.

And other evidence suggests that being engaged in all of those different areas promotes both physical and emotional health, she adds.

Different roles, of course, are more socially engaging than others. Others are more cognitively challenging or physically stimulating. You’ll get something out of each of those roles. But the theory would suggest that the more the work covers all of those bases (keeping you moving, socially engaged and mentally challenged), the more benefit you might (theoretically) get.

Unfortunately finding such an opportunity that checks all of those boxes and fits into your schedule may not be straightforward to find. But it’s certainly not impossible, Morrow-Howell and others say.

When it comes to volunteering, too much choice may be counterproductive

Google “volunteer opportunities” and you’ll likely come across several national and local opportunities or resources that help place volunteers.

Those resources can be great for connecting rising volunteers with projects that fit their schedule and need them, Morrow-Howell says. But for some the sheer volume of choice can be overwhelming.

(In New York City, for example, someone can search volunteer projects by day of the week, time of day, subway line, and type of work, using certain databases. It’s great for finding that project that’s exactly what you’re looking for — as long as you know exactly what you’re looking for to begin with.)

Behavioral economics theory pretty clearly shows that to help people make better choices more easily, don’t overwhelm people with choices, Morrow-Howell explains. “We do just the opposite in volunteering. We throw a ga-zillion options at people thinking that everybody needs a lot of choice.”

And while it’s good to give volunteers choices that make volunteering their time and energy convenient, it’s also important to recognize that that much choice can overwhelm people and make it harder to find something that truly resonates, Morrow-Howell says.

5 tips for finding volunteer work that doesn’t feel anything like work

The point is — especially if you find yourself wanting to volunteer your time but having trouble finding something that you can stick with — maybe changing your tactics could help. Here are a few tips from Morow-Howell and others:

1. Do it with a friend

That same decision-making theory that says we get overwhelmed by too many choices says that people are much more likely to do something if others around around them are participating, says Morrow-Howell. That means you’ll be much more motivated to actually leave the office early for that youth mentoring program if you’re headed out with a co-worker or meeting a friend there.

2. Start small, go slow and let it grow

Don’t jump into a thrice-a-week commitment right away, Morrow-Howell says. Volunteer a day at a time, going back because you want to. As you develop relationships with the people there, more opportunities to get more involved will likely show up more naturally (and you may find the time commitment doesn’t seem so overwhelming).

3. Find a cause you care about

If you care about the cause you’re giving back to, you’re much more likely to feel good about the time you’re donating and keep doing it, says Victoria King, Community Outreach Coordinator with Volunteers of America in the Southeast Louisiana region.

Finding something meaningful can be as easy as identifying skills and abilities that you can bring to the table, along with a group or organization that needs those things, King says. “Key is finding someone that needs what you have to offer,” she says.

And speaking of what you have to offer…

4. Do something you love

Are you a musician? Is there somewhere you can donate your time and skill (like a local senior center)? Do you love to cook? Is there a local soup kitchen that might need help? “The extent to which a role is very engaging, fulfilling and purposeful to a person is important,” Morrow-Howell says.

5. Check local websites and national ones

Here’s where those volunteer matching programs and huge databases (like Volunteers of America or VolutneerMatch) may be helpful. If you have an activity in mind, a resource that can connect you to an organization or group of people who might benefit from your skills may be extremely helpful.

But if you can, try a few different opportunities out to figure out which one is the best fit, Morrow-Howell says.


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