I write a lot about finding our your own version of success, improving your own life, and how to muddle through the trials, tribulations and hard choices to make that happen. But lets be honest, it is pretty self-centered. I am not apologizing for it; it needs to be. I full heartedly believe we must learn to reflect and dream, create a vision, set goals, and figure out what we need to do to achieve. And then, hopefully we can actually get where we want to go. This process is vital.
But, what I haven’t really written about and probably should have already is that that all of our internal thinking and focus needs to be balanced. Balanced with an external perspective. Otherwise, we are disconnected from the world around ys. How we can each do our part in helping to make the world a better place. Not in a Pollyanna-ish kinda way, but in a real way. Something that shows we know there is more going on in the world than just in our own little box (or heads ). Why? Simply because there is! I think that one way to do that is to volunteer. Volunteering is a way to remember that lesson and experience it first hand. Different than donating which is more arms length. Of course important too but not 3-dimensional enough. Not only is volunteering a portion of your time something that you should do, it can also significantly enrich your own life and maybe even move you that much closer to your own vision?
In her report in the Cornell Chronicle, Phyllis Moen, at the time, the Ferris Family Professor in Life Course Studies in human development and sociology and the director of the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center at Cornell, reported that community commitments, especially formal participation, help enhance our sense of identity, increase confidence and promote social relationships. Moen points out that "we become what we do” and volunteering gives us a sense of ourselves as engaged in meaningful, productive activities that help change the world and gives us a wider view of our possibilities, which in turn benefits our psychological well-being.
Added to all of the “feel good and social benefits” to volunteering, we also get the amazing opportunity to share our skills, expertise and time. Sometimes it is a great way to learn new skills too in a more “forgiving” environment than the paid workforce. When you are not being paid and giving of your time, there is usually a higher tolerance for “learning on the job”. For those women looking for flexible commitments, volunteer work can be a great match (if you are not depenedent on a paycheck). Not too mention the opportunity to increase your social and professional network for perhaps a job search, career change or maybe a new friend.
Over the past two decades we have also seen a growing body of research that indicates volunteering provides individual health benefits in addition to social benefits, espeically in the later years. This research is presented by the Corporation for National and Community Service. This is a federal agency that engages more than five million Americans in service through Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, and Learn and Serve America, and leads President Obama's national call to service initiative, United We Serve.
In a report titled “The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research,” a strong relationship between volunteering and health is proven:
…those who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer. Comparisons of the health benefits of volunteering for different age groups have also shown that older volunteers are the most likely to receive greater benefits from volunteering, whether because they are more likely to face higher incidence of illness or because volunteering provides them with physical and social activity and a sense of purpose at a time when their social roles are changing. Some of these findings also indicate that volunteers who devote a “considerable” amount of time to volunteer activities (about 100 hours per year) are most likely to exhibit positive health outcomes.
It has also been shown that people who volunteer early in life are much more likely to volunteer later in life, when the psychological affects are particularly important. More of a reason to start early and get our children involved so they can incorporate volunteering into their lives as the grow. That belief has led to things like “community hours” in high schools and other curriculum and character education programs in schools, like the one in my children’s schools called Project Giveback. Developed by the incredible and dynamic Ellen Schwartz, Project Give Back is an individualized curriculum based program aimed to enhance responsibility and develop a deep-seated feeling in one’s self to make a difference in the lives of others. This gives children a global and empathetic perspective from early on in the hopes that they will continue to develop this “muscle” as they get older.
Personally, I have used volunteer work for many different purposes at various times in my life; when I was single in my 20’s it was about fun and social outreach, in my 30’s it was first a way to transition to a new City and feel connected, when I had children young children it was a flexible way to bet back to work”, give back and focus on something other than what was happening in my own life. Now in my 40’s, I continue to try and offer my skill set to various organizations where it might be needed, act as a role model for my children, and as a constant reminder that there is a world out there that I am proudly a part of and have social responsibility to share in the care.
So where to volunteer? The opportunities are endless; schools, communities, boards, hospitals, geriatrics, political activism, politics, social causes, soup kitchens, food banks, religious affiliations…. there are even services like Volunteer Match that wil help you find out what is avaiable in your area. Everyone has a cause close to their heart and reasons of their own for choosing what they might do, doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do something and I promise, it will not only help others but help you too.