Len Gutman | Special to WJW
It may seem counterintuitive, but many experts believe the best way to improve your health is to do something good for someone else. Studies suggest a direct correlation between volunteering and positive health outcomes, including lower blood pressure, lower stress levels, less depression and even a longer lifespan.
Volunteerism also has roots in religious teaching. In Judaism, we have tzedakah, which is the obligation to do what is right and that Judaism emphasizes as an important part of living a spiritual life.
In Islam, the word is nearly the same. Boxer Muhammad Ali said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” As a Muslim, Ali knew giving, or Sadaqah, was a way to be closer to Allah.
Buddhists have a required action called Dana, which encourages giving, sharing and selfless giving (there is even sweat Dana where the giver can donate time and effort in lieu of money).
While serving others can improve your health and make you feel pious, those who volunteer regularly do it simply because it makes them feel good. In these times of political strife, a global pandemic and economic uncertainty, we could all benefit from finding ways to be happier — even better if it helps those in need.
Volunteering is especially important for seniors. According to a study done by the Corporation for National and Community Service, Americans over the age of 60 that volunteered reported lower disability and higher levels of well-being compared to those who did not volunteer. Added benefits for seniors include spending time with younger generations, battling loneliness and promoting physical activity.
Opportunities for seniors to volunteer are endless and limited only by your desire to give back. I used to think volunteering meant you had to dole out food at a meal center or sort clothes at a donation center. These services are critical to the community, but they barely scratch the surface of the numerous ways you can give your time. In the early 2000s, I set out to explore the many ways a person could volunteer, and over two years, I discovered that volunteering is as varied as the stars in the sky. For example, I sorted books at a public library, answered phones at the local public broadcasting station, spent time with kids at the zoo and coached baseball at a community center. I built a house for a homeless family, led arts and crafts at a homeless shelter, worked the disc jockey booth at a mock city that taught kids about commerce and delivered meals. I painted the toenails of a severely disabled person and collected change in front of a grocery store during the holidays while wearing a Santa hat.
Volunteering in the community eventually led me to leave a successful career in public relations to work full-time in nonprofit management. It was not so much a mid-life crisis as a mid-life moment of clarity. I was happier when I was doing something for others. It wasn’t enough to volunteer my time; instead, I wanted to work for a cause. Why shouldn’t I be happy all the time?
A mentor of mine wrote a book about looking at your life as if it were a financial portfolio — life, like your investments, needs diversity to be successful. She believed everyone should spend time on their career, spend time with friends and family, spend time on hobbies and spend time giving back. Each of us can illustrate our life as a pie chart and choose which wedges are big and which are small. I can tell you from my experience that the bigger the volunteer wedge is, the happier you will be.
If you spend time volunteering, you probably already know this lesson. If not, why not get out there and give some time? If you don’t know where to start, ask a friend to share where they volunteer. Find out what opportunities are available at organizations you belong to, whether a community center or synagogue or a grandkids’ sports league. Look into the organizations you support financially with donations — most nonprofits have volunteer opportunities. There are also resources to help you find a place to volunteer. I recommend VolunteerMatch (volunteermatch.org).
Lastly, don’t wait until the holidays to volunteer. Nonprofits are swamped with volunteers in November and December but desperate for help the rest of the year. Get started now — you’ll be happy you did.
Len Gutman is vice president of philanthropic services for Jewish Family & Children’s Service in Phoenix.