Giving Back: Why Giving is a Great Way to Receive
People in recovery from addiction need to find healthy ways to manage negative moods and emotions. Volunteering time, money and resources can be a great way to accomplish that goal. Taking the focus off of personal needs and focusing instead on meeting the needs of others can help improve emotional health in a number of ways.
Emotional Benefits of Volunteering
An article posted on the website Everyday Health reports on a review of 40 studies on the relationship between volunteering and well-being.[i] The review found multiple benefits to volunteering, including lower levels of depression. Several possible reasons for the benefits were proposed.
The author notes that volunteering generally involves activity, and activity improves strength and fitness. Physical fitness is associated with greater resilience to stress, which has a wide array of benefits. Volunteering also generally involves social connection with people who have common values and goals. Social connections lead to a release of the hormone oxytocin and, like fitness, help people handle stress more effectively.
An article on the HelpGuide website notes other benefits of volunteering.[ii] It notes, for example, that volunteering can help build skills. It can lead to an increase in self-confidence and self-esteem, provide a sense of identity and pride, and promote a positive view of the future and of the ability to meet goals.
Volunteering can also increase a sense of purpose. Those looking to give their lives meaning may find this meaning in the activity of helping others. Volunteering can provide mental stimulation and help reduce focus on personal problems.
Volunteering appears to be directly related to happiness. HelpGuide reports on a study of a large group of adults that found a correlation between levels of volunteering and feeling happy. People who volunteered monthly were 7% more likely to report being very happy than people who never volunteered. The rate in people who volunteered every two to four weeks was 12% higher. The authors note that the difference in happiness levels between non-volunteers and those who volunteered weekly was comparable to the difference in levels between people who make $20,000 per year and those with incomes of $75,000-$100,000.
Motivation and Moderation in Volunteering
Although volunteering brings many potential benefits, some people are likely to benefit more than others. The Everyday Health article notes that volunteering simply to reap personal rewards is not likely to produce positive health effects. In order to benefit fully, the true desire to help others needs to be the motivation that drives action. The article also notes that people who are religious tend to reap the most benefits from volunteering, possibly because serving others resonates with their spiritual beliefs.
Like anything, volunteering can be overdone. A study reported in the journal Gerontologist examined levels of volunteering in participants between the ages of 64 and 68. The study found that people who volunteered at moderate levels had higher psychological well-being than either non-volunteers or those who volunteered at high levels.[iii] The HelpGuide article notes that the most personal benefits generally come from volunteering about two to three hours per week.
Finding Ways to Give Back
Anyone can find volunteer opportunities. Sometimes people prefer to build on interests and skills they already possess, and sometimes people prefer to branch out and use volunteering as an opportunity to try new things. In general, the more deeply people feel about a cause, the more satisfying volunteering in service of it will be.
For people in recovery from addiction, helping others on the same journey is a logical way to volunteer. A 2009 article in the journal Health Progress notes that helping others has long been a central tenet of the well-known addiction support group Alcoholics Anonymous.[iv] The article reported on a study finding that alcoholics who were actively involved in helping others achieve sobriety were significantly less likely to relapse themselves.
Helping others can produce some of the same feelings produced by drugs and alcohol. Levels of hormones and neurotransmitters such as oxytocin, vasopressin and dopamine may be altered, leading to feelings of relaxation and pleasure. This state is sometimes referred to as a “helper’s high.” A study referenced in the Health Progress article reports on ways in which people noted feeling better after they began volunteering. About half reported feeling “high,” and 43 percent reported feeling more energetic and stronger.
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[i] “How Volunteering Can Lessen Depression and Extend Your Life,” Sara Konrath, Ph.D., Everyday Health, August 22, 2013, http://www.everydayhealth.com/depression/how-volunteering-can-lessen-depression-and-extend-your-life.aspx (January 9, 2016).
[ii] “Volunteering and its Surprising Benefits: Helping Others While Helping Yourself,” Joanna Saisan, M.S.W., Melinda Smith, M.A., and Gina Kemp, M.A. , HelpGuide, September 2015, http://www.helpguide.org/articles/work-career/volunteering-and-its-surprising-benefits.htm (January 9, 2016).
[iii] “Volunteering and psychological well-being among young-old adults: how much is too much?” T.D. Windsor, K.J. Anstey and B. Rodgers, Gerontologist, February 2008, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18381833 (January 9, 2016).
[iv] “It’s Good to Be Good: Science Says It’s So,” Stephen G. Post, Ph.D., Health Progress, July-August 2009, http://www.stonybrook.edu/bioethics/goodtobegood.pdf (January 9, 2016).