Australians spend a staggering 700 million hours volunteering each year. To celebrate National Volunteer Week (8-14 May), we spoke to three University experts in happiness, psychology and pharmacology to find out the real benefits of volunteering.
From improving our health and happiness to promoting a sense of belonging, boosting mood and making friends, the case for volunteering keeps building. Here are some surprising reasons why volunteering doesn’t just benefit other people, it will improve your own wellbeing too.
“Satisfaction with life is at least partially dependent on living a life with purpose and meaning,” says alumnus Dr. Tim Sharp (PhD(Medicine) ’98) who is affectionately referred to as ‘Dr. Happy’. “Volunteering provides both these things in spades.
“We feel good about ourselves when we’re doing good to and for others.”
Dr Sharp is backed up by the OECD Better Life Index, which says volunteers tend to be more satisfied with their lives because they’re interacting with other people, setting and achieving goals, and learning new things.
People who “give” – either money or their time – have been reported to be happier and healthier than those who don’t. A 2007 study led by Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University found that givers were 42 percent more likely than non-givers to say they were “very happy”.
Dr. Rebecca Pinkus, Lecturer in Psychological Statistics adds, “Volunteering keeps you in a positive mood and can help lift you out of a negative mood.”
Helping others is also related to improved physical health, including weight control, lower blood pressure and relief from depression and chronic pain.
Brooks’ study also found that givers were 25 percent more likely to say they were “in excellent health.”
Dr Sharp explains this result: “When we’re helping others we’re more likely to feel good about ourselves which is, not surprisingly, a positive contributor to mental health. Mental and physical health are highly correlated so when we’re psychologically well, we’re also more likely to be physically well,” he says.
Helping others triggers the reward pathway in the brain known as the mesolimbic system. It releases “feel-good” neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and vasopressin.
The buzz you get from these neurotransmitters is sometimes known as “the helpers high”.
Dr. Michael Bowen (BA ’08 BA(Hons) ’10 PhD ’14) received the University’s 2015 Rita and John Cornforth Medal and is an expert on the effects of brain chemicals. “Empathy has been shown to elevate oxytocin levels in blood plasma,” he says. “With higher levels of empathy and oxytocin being associated with increased generosity.
“Interestingly, other studies have reported that administering oxytocin in a nasal spray increases generosity compared to a placebo nasal spray,” he says.
"So, it might actually be the case that oxytocin helps to promote generosity, in at least some scenarios."
This creates a “feel-good” cycle: oxytocin makes you more likely to be generous, being generous produces more oxytocin, which makes you more likely to continue being generous.
Volunteering is a great way to promote strong social networks. This is because of what’s called “prosocial behavior”, which means that what we’re doing benefits other people – this can be seen in helping, sharing, donating and volunteering.
Research suggests this is a beneficial way to connect with your community and build positive relationships through creating social capital, building bonds of trust, cooperation and respect for diversity.
As a prolific University volunteer, Pauline Plumb (BVArts '04 MSA(Hons) '04) has experienced this first hand, "Volunteering is an adventure. Meeting people from different walks of life and different ways of life brings together unexpected experiences. It gave me a sense of purpose to give back to the University community that I value so much.”
Ever heard of something called the ‘emotional contagion’? We hadn’t either. But as the name suggests, it’s contagious. When two people catch it, they tend to “match-up” emotionally. If a person is feeling positive and enjoying the process of giving, then this spreads across to other people nearby who become significantly more likely to give as well.
There’s a bit of a catch-22 when it comes to volunteering – we can’t just volunteer in order to get the benefits. It’s a lot like how you can’t just demand that you’ll be happy on the spot.
To get the full benefits of volunteering, the trick is to get involved in something you’re passionate about. This is exactly what President of the University’s Alumni Council, Peter Shaw (BSc ’89 LLB(Hons) ’91 MBA(Exec) ’05) did when he took on this voluntary role.
"There is something about giving to others that adds enjoyment to life. Finding the organisation or cause which engages your heart and mind, and contributing to it in ways that are meaningful to you and valuable to others, is a great gift to uncover," says Mr. Shaw.
So go, get out there and find something you’re passionate about, and feel better knowing you’ve helped others.
There are lots of alumni volunteering opportunities at the University to explore, from helping at graduations and welcoming our newest international students, to mentoring fellow alumni and assisting in philanthropy activities.
The University Careers Centre is a great place to start when seeking volunteer work. Check out the Careers Centre website for key information on finding volunteer opportunities, plus access volunteer roles via the Sydney CareerHub Jobs Database.