5 Ways Volunteering Can Improve Your Mental Health

It’s a busy time of year! We just celebrated Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and now Christmas and, of course, the New Year. One thing that strikes me around this time of year is that we are so focused on getting ready for holiday parties and buying gifts for family and friends that we often forget the true meaning of the holidays. Furthermore, we often forget about those who are suffering and don’t have the luxury of a nice meal or being able to buy a gift for a loved one.

As a therapist, I often talk to clients about volunteering. It’s an opportunity to help others which can be incredibly fulfilling, gratifying and worthwhile. It’s also an occasion to step outside of ourselves and focus on others who may be lonely this time of year.

Volunteering has so many benefits. First and foremost, we are helping others or a cause we believe in. Second, it can benefit our mental health in a number of ways which include:

1. Reducing Stress

As we commit to a cause or helping others in need, our focus shifts from our own problems to something or someone else. This helps distract us from the stress and discomfort we experience in our daily lives and provides us with a new perspective.

2. Combats Depression

As we focus on a cause or helping others, we distract ourselves from our destructive and negative thoughts, and get involved with something which is meaningful and satisfying. In addition, volunteering helps us feel better about ourselves since we are helping others and making the world a better place.   

3. Improves Self-Confidence

As we volunteer, we gain skills and help others, and this combination helps us feel worthwhile. Our commitment and dedication to our cause, and improving our skill set, will ultimately help us feel better about ourselves.

4. Gives Us a Sense of Purpose

As we dedicate ourselves to a cause, we ultimately find a sense of purpose, meaning and fulfillment in our lives. As we age, a sense of purpose is key to our quest for meaning in life. Stepping out of our comfort zone and helping others is key to a fulfilling life.

5. Prevents Feelings of Isolation

Many people feel isolated and disconnected. Volunteering can counteract those feelings because we connect with others who have similar interests and passions. As we help others and share in a similar cause, we feel more connected to ourselves, as well as to others.

I have personally experienced the benefits of volunteering. As a therapist, it’s important for me to practice what I preach, so I do my very best to volunteer for causes and organizations I believe in.Volunteer work has given my life more purpose, joy and energy.

A few weeks ago, I went for a volunteer orientation at Rosie’s Place in Boston, MA, a shelter that helps poor and homeless women maintain dignity, seek opportunity and find security. What an amazing place! I arrived at Rosie’s a bit early, so I had time to hang out and watch the comings and goings of clients, staff and volunteers. From this point on, I knew that my heart was in this organization. It’s a place where women can seek support, learn new skills, and mingle with other women, all without being being judged. 

I also volunteer as an ESL teacher. It’s amazing! I love working with my students because not only do I impart my knowledge and command of the English language onto them, they also teach me so much about their culture and language. It’s such a rich experience, and I come home with a smile on my face each time I see my students. What a gift!

I encourage all of my clients to look inside, find a cause they feel connected with, and volunteer for this cause. Giving back is gratifying and good for the soul. You don’t need to find the perfect volunteer position, but search for a cause you care about, and try it out. What’s the worst that can happen?

Volunteering can help in many facets of your life. It’s an amazing and gratifying experience which will take you outside of your comfort zone and may help you find your passion and meaning in life. What better gift could you possibly give or receive this holiday season?

As always, please feel free to email us with questions, concerns, or comments.

Karen Chinca LICSW

Karen Chinca is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) located in Brookline, Massachusetts, with over ten years of experience in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for treating individuals and families who are dealing with academic, personal, and professional stress.