Why Volunteering Is Good For You And The Planet

9 mins

Giving your time to others is also giving to yourself. Here are five reasons why you should be volunteering and how it makes you happier

Anand is heading out to do a litter pick on the beach while his partner Daisy plans to spend the afternoon volunteering to coach the local junior hockey team. The pair have also signed up to marshal at a charity 10k race. 

But far from being silver-haired do-gooders with plenty of time on their hands, Anand, 33, works in finance while Daisy, 34, is a hotel manager. They also have three children aged under eight. 

‘Our lives are busy, sometimes chaotic, but we love volunteering, and we offer our time regularly,’ says Daisy. ‘We know we’re doing our bit for the community and for the planet. And if we’re honest, it makes us feel a little bit earnest!’

Volunteer Army

woman holding litter of puppies at animal sanctuary where they are volunteering

Anand and Daisy are just two of a growing army of volunteers across the world – they’re people who give their time freely, whether they’re cleaning up their neighbourhood, visiting older people to keep them company, working in their local library an afternoon a week, driving people to hospital appointments or helping at an animal sanctuary.

While some people like doctors and nurses use their professional skills in their voluntary roles, others pitch in when they’re needed. Opportunities range from helping out at a food bank, collecting books for recycling, running the tombola at a charity fund-raiser and coaching a junior football team to medical aid in a crisis, such as hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, and transporting aid to war zones.

In the UAE more than 21,000 volunteers of different nationalities were registered with authorities two years ago, while in the US an estimated 23.2 per cent of Americans – more than 60.7 million people – formally volunteered with organisations between September 2020 and 2021.

‘When you volunteer, you’re helping out your community, whether you’re feeding the homeless or teaching someone to read. It’s like giving your neighbourhood a big hug’ 

And in the UK a survey carried out by The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport revealed the age group most likely to volunteer are the 65 to 74-year-olds – 29 per cent of them donate their time every month, while 42 per cent volunteer once a year. The group least likely to volunteer are the 25 to 34-year-olds. 

Jasmine Navarro, who runs a coaching business – NAVA – between Dubai and the UK, says: ‘Volunteering used to be seen as something only super kind or retired people did. But now, more and more people from all walks of life are getting involved. It’s becoming normal now because we understand better how it helps everyone.

‘When you volunteer, you’re helping out your community, whether you’re feeding the homeless or teaching someone to read. It’s like giving your neighbourhood a big hug. 

Good For You 

volunteering releases dopamine to make you happier

‘It’s also a happiness pill because it releases chemicals in the brain that make you feel awesome. It’s a great way to make friends and make you feel like you belong. It can also make your body healthier,’ adds Jasmine.

‘Even simple activities like picking up litter can get you moving and boost your energy. You’ll learn new things, like how to fix a bike or organise an event. You might even meet cool people who’ll help you in your career. Volunteering isn’t just good for others – it’s good for you too!’

According to performance and focus coach Phil Olley, volunteering is vital because it’s at the heart of our three areas of fulfilment, which are crucial for our happiness and growth.

‘Volunteering fulfils us and our potential and it contributes to the world. We don’t find that common thread in other parts of our life’

He explains: ‘We have fulfilment of the self, which is our overall contentment. Then we have fulfilment of our potential. This can be seen in our achievements. Finally, we have fulfilment of purpose, which is our contribution to the world. 

Ticking All The Boxes

people volunteering at a food bank

‘When we volunteer, we tick all three of those boxes. If they were on a Venn diagram, volunteering would be the part where they all overlap in the centre. Volunteering fulfils us and our potential and it contributes to the world. We don’t find that common thread in other parts of our life.’

What’s more, volunteering is good for our self-development. ‘There’s a saying – a volunteer is worth ten pressed men,’ says Phil. ‘This is because volunteers have a clear reason to donate their time and energy. They’re more committed than if they’re told they have to do a particular job.

‘Having motivation commitment and perseverance are character muscles we want to grow, and when we volunteer, we also grow skills. Quite often, we do things that we wouldn’t encounter in our everyday lives. 

‘Say, for example, we volunteer with an amateur dramatics group – we might get called upon to play a small part, be a runner for the production company or help with stagecraft. We might work alongside a carpenter, and not only will we learn some fantastic woodwork skills, but we’ll also gain confidence.

‘At work, we are often alongside people who are very much like us, but when we volunteer, we deal with people from all levels of society. Voluntary roles teach us to listen to people and understand them. We hear other people’s points of view, and we get fresh perspectives. Youngsters get to spend time with much older people.’

Authentic Volunteering

So how do we get started? One of the first things to consider, says Phil, is why we’re volunteering.‘A lot of people volunteer for the right reasons, and they get a lot out of it,’ he reveals. ‘But if you volunteer because you want thanks and appreciation, that won’t be enough to sustain you. You might have someone saying: “Thank you” and “Well done”, but you will then have achieved your goal, and you won’t have a reason to carry on.

‘Equally, there are other people who help green causes, for example, so they can post on social media about it. This creates a huge virtue signal – they want to look better to their peers, but if they’re cleaning up oceans just for the Facebook likes, they won’t stick at it in the long term.’

‘Voluntary roles teach us to listen to people and understand them. We hear other people’s points of view, and we get fresh perspectives. Youngsters get to spend time with much older people’

So how do we decide how to volunteer in a way that’s right for us? Working in the coffee shop at a local hospital might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and organising a huge fund-raising charity ball could send many people into a spin. Refereeing a children’s football match might make your heart sing with joy – or sink with absolute horror and dread, especially if you shy away from conflict or you’re hazy about the offside rule’

‘We have to be authentic when we decide where we’re going to give our time,’ says Phil, author of Reflections from the White Tunnel (FCM Publishing). ‘If we volunteer, and see it as drudgery, we won’t commit to the hours. Finding something that’s aligned to your values and ethics is best.

book cover Reflections from the white tunnel by Phil Olley

‘If you’re gregarious, you might enjoy greeting patients on the front desk of a hospital and showing them where they need to be or having a starring role in a fund-raising pantomime or dance contest. 

‘If you love the environment or appreciate order, doing a beach clean would be perfect for you. Love sport? Help at a gym or coach a junior sports team. You’ll share an excitement for your game and see young people develop a passion for sport. Are you organised and efficient? Then you might like to be a voluntary clerk for a council.’

So, if you fancy kickstarting some voluntary work, here are some tips from Jasmine and Phil to help you begin.

Have A Clear Goal

If you volunteer to litter pick or clean up rivers and oceans, your dream goal might be to achieve the most wonderful, cleaned-up planet, says Phil.

‘Then break that enormous goal down into smaller goals. If you’re litter picking, you might decide filling eight bin bags with rubbish is your goal for one day,’ he says, ‘and achieving that will make you feel brilliant.’

Right Choice

If the thought of helping in a creche makes your heart sink, then helping with childcare isn’t for you. But if you might love horses, you might help some disabled youngsters on a horse ride.

‘Find an experience that not only makes a difference in other people’s lives, but also boosts your own wellbeing and confidence,’ says Jasmine.

Think Local

Some of the smaller groups in our communities are crying out for help, so don’t rule them out, says Phil.

‘While people are focusing on the bigger green issues, help has reduced dramatically for school fetes and local events in some areas,’ he says. ‘Consider helping out the scouts or guides, or another community group that desperately needs your help.’

Plan Your Time

You probably have a job, a family and regular commitments, so be realistic about the time you can commit to volunteering, says Jasmine.

‘Remember to balance your volunteering commitments with other responsibilities to avoid burnout,’ she advises.

Honour Commitments

If you agree to donate a certain number of hours, then stick to that commitment, urges Phil.

‘When you go into volunteering, it’s important to remember it will take a chunk of your time,’ he says. ‘Make sure family members are involved in the decision. Your volunteering will have an impact on everyone and if you do it properly, it will be for the better.’

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