7 reasons why volunteering is good for our mental health

April 11, 2024
By Lara Fruitman, RSW, Employment Support Worker, CMHA Toronto

One of the best ways to help ourselves is to help others. You will often hear this advice from therapists and counsellors, including me! As an employment support worker for CMHA Toronto, I deliver workshops on how volunteering can be a useful strategy in working towards your career goals and developing employment-related skills. 

But volunteering has benefits beyond that. When working with CMHA Toronto clients, I often hear how loneliness and seclusion is a major hindrance to recovery and the maintenance of people’s mental health. Being able to regularly get out of the house, interact with others in a positive environment, and feel a sense of belonging tends to be a significant motivating factor and one of the most frequently reported benefits of volunteering that I hear.

There’s solid evidence to make the case that volunteering has tangible effects on our overall mental health. Summing up the research, Susan Albers, a psychologist for the Cleveland Clinic, says volunteering “has been shown to decrease stress levels, depression, anxiety and boost overall health and satisfaction with life.” The Mayo Clinic concurs: “By spending time in service to others, volunteers report feeling a sense of meaning and appreciation, both given and received, which can have a stress-reducing effect.”  

Here are seven reasons why volunteering is a boon for better mental health: 

1. It creates community and belonging. 

By providing opportunities for social interaction, volunteering can help us make new friends, build our support system, and connect with our community – all of which can decrease feelings of isolation and loneliness. 

2. It makes us happier in the now and gives us hope for the future.

A 2020 study conducted in the United Kingdom found that those who volunteered reported an increase in feelings of well-being after volunteering. When we enjoy better well-being in the present, we are more likely to have hope for the future – and hope is a crucial element for better mental health, resilience, and healing

3. It can support an external focus and increase our sense of agency.

When we pursue activities that serve others, we shift our attention from an internal to an external focus. We find the space to put less emphasis on our thoughts, worries and fears and pay more attention to things going on in the world around us. This can be especially useful for those of us who cope with depression or anxiety and may experience repetitive thoughts or cycling moods. What’s more, being actively engaged in the world around us increases our sense of agency and empowerment. Taking action to make change, even in small ways, flips the script from feeling helpless to being helpful. 

4. It builds hard and “soft” skills.

Volunteering can expose us to new people, places, and practices and help us build skills we already have or develop new ones. As we apply these skills, we develop feelings of mastery, self-confidence, self-esteem, and even a sense of pride. These feelings create a virtuous circle, where one good thing leads to another. 

5. It can be a good transition, or gentle re-entry, for those who have been out of the workplace for a while.

Volunteering for an hour or two a week can bring a needed sense of structure and routine to our lives, which provides stability and direction. As we build our capacity, we can also build the amount of time and energy we have available to devote to volunteering or to transition to paid employment. 

Not only can volunteering build capacity, it can also demonstrate to an employer that you have great skills that can be used in the workplace – and provide a reference to boot! 

6. It offers opportunities for reinforcement and appreciation from others.

Positive social interactions with others, and giving and receiving help and appreciation, release serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins – neurotransmitters in our brain’s reward centre that play a role in pleasure, motivation, mood, and learning. These substances are nature’s own anti-depressants, helping to boost positive, relaxed feelings and reduce stress.  

7. It contributes to a sense of purpose and meaning.

When we choose a volunteering opportunity that aligns with our interests, passions, and values it can help us feel part of something bigger than ourselves – reinforcing the value of what we can offer the world, expressing our identity, and enabling us to give back in ways that are meaningful to us. 
April 14 – 20, 2024 is National Volunteer Week across Canada. This year’s theme is Every Moment Matters, which celebrates the many volunteers who share their time, skills, empathy, and creativity to help build strong and inclusive communities. Visit Volunteer Canada to learn more.

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