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How to get yourself a ‘helper’s high’ by volunteering

Volunteering is seen as a largely selfless act – but is there more in it for you than you realise?

Giving up time to help a local cause or charity with no renumeration in sight isn’t just beneficial to others. Research suggests that while the impulse to volunteer may come from an altruistic place, volunteering may actually benefit the helper as much as the cause. So what is this ‘helper’s high’?!

We look at some of the benefits gained from stepping up

Improve your mood

Research done on volunteers has consistently shown that pitching in and helping out can give volunteers a sense of wellbeing, or a ‘helper’s high.’ Knowing you’ve done something to benefit others triggers the release of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin – all essential for regulating and improving mood. These helpful chemicals also help to block cortisol, the stress hormone.

Emma Thomas-Hancock, Director of Delivery at Volunteering Matters has witnessed this first hand in many of the volunteers she’s worked with. “One of the biggest takeaways is a sense of happiness and purpose. It’s hard to measure, but you can see it and feel it when you talk to our volunteers,” she says.

I volunteered at a lunch club for socially isolated older people. It was wonderful seeing people enjoying themselves and finding friendship. I felt a real sense of satisfaction being part of the community. Sally, 57, Devon

Enhance your health

If you’re health-conscious and mindful of how the ageing process is affecting you, you may be interested to learn that a study in 2017 concluded that the collective health benefits experienced when volunteering was equivalent to turning the clock back five years. Other research found that volunteering reduced the risk of cognitive impairment (problems with thinking, learning and memory) in older individuals.

I volunteer at my local theatre, as an usher and as a panelist at local hospital. I believe it helps the wheels go round, and it gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I am giving back having had a successful life. Carole, 72

Find more fun

While charities and community projects are often there for a serious purpose, working as a volunteer can still be enormous fun. “My advice to someone thinking of volunteering is consider something you’re going to enjoy,” says Hancock. “Don’t make it too stressful on yourself, but focus on the fun. I would encourage people thinking about volunteering for the first time is to choose activities they’ll get the most out of.”

I volunteer with the homeless at Christmas as a counsellor. I find it a total reset, with the bonus of spending the festive period with really nice people who care about others. Liz, 50, Essex

Make new friends

Many of us find over the years that our social circle naturally shrinks. Long-term friends move away, or become busy with work and life, and we can feel a little isolated. Volunteering for an organisation or project is an ideal opportunity to make new, often local, connections. And having a shared goal means you’ll always have plenty to talk about and bond over.

I volunteer at the local Avoiding Food Waste Shop and I love it. I work mainly online and from home [in my day job] so it’s great to get out and meet fellow volunteers from all walks of life who I wouldn’t meet otherwise. Sylvia, 57, Kent

Build your confidence

People in midlife and beyond may seem to have it all figured out, but research in the US has shown that many suffer a ‘midlife confidence drop’. Volunteering can be a great way of regaining that confidence, while helping others. “It’s an opportunity for rejuvenation and a reminder of the person you are and the things you’re capable of,” says Hancock.

I volunteered at the winter night shelter. Reminded me of human kindness, respect and how lucky I truly am. Nicky, 55, Bedford

Rise to the challenge

Volunteering also gives us a chance to take on a new challenge – offering a refreshing change from the day job, or a chance to inject new energy into our retirement years. “Some volunteers who are post-retirement have felt really underchallenged in their daily lives. But volunteering has put them back into a place where they feel good. Some have even developed their own volunteer programmes,” says Hancock.

I volunteered at a local Arts organisation. I love being able to use the skills I learned in 25 years of corporate life into something I am passionate about. Susan, 54, Essex

Where to start

If you’ve decided to give volunteering a go, the next step is to work out how much time you would like to give, and what sort of project you’d like to take on. There are a wealth of different organisations who can help, including the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action,  Reach Volunteering, and Volunteering Matters.

“Be really choosy. There’s loads of stuff you can do, so you’ve got the choice and the time to really sit back and select the thing that works for you,” advises Hancock. “Remember, how much you volunteer and what you do is entirely up to you. You are in the driving seat.”

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Gillian Harvey

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