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The Gift That Gives Back

Smiling Caucasian senior woman smiles while accepting a canned food donation at a charity food drive. Volunteers are working in the background.

‘Tis the season for gifting and giving! Whether it’s a homemade scarf for a close relative or the sought-after toy for a young one, we all spend time finding the perfect present to bring joy to others. But there is one gift you can give that will give you something: volunteering!

International Volunteering Day is December 5. It’s a great time to recognize the collective impact – and individual good – volunteering does. In 2021, 60.7 million adults donated 41 billion hours, roughly the economic equivalent of $122.9 billion. This year’s theme, “if everyone did,” highlights the power everyone has to improve the world.

Importantly, volunteering is also good for the person freely giving their time, talent, and skills. Doing good for others has at least three tremendous benefits.

  • It can boost your mood. When you volunteer, you expand your social networks, meeting new people who share your values. A study of over 70,000 people found those who volunteered felt more satisfied with life and their health than those who did not; in simple terms, they were happier. Volunteering was like having an extra $1,100 in your pocket.
  • It can increase physical health. Want to live longer? Research suggests that volunteering is one way to thrive: Those who volunteer tend to have a lower mortality rate than those who don’t. Volunteering usually means more walking and other movement. Additionally, volunteering may prevent high blood pressure and could be an effective, non-pharmacological way to reduce hypertension risk.
  • It can improve brain function. Participating in new activities and refining useful skills can engage the mind and increase self-confidence. For older adults, volunteering in activities like tutoring can delay or even reverse declining brain function. “Volunteering…could serve as a simple intervention in all older adults to protect against risk for Alzheimer’s disease and associated dementias,” explained Yi Lor, an epidemiology doctoral student at the University of California Davis.

So, how can you make the most of volunteering? First, figure out how you would like to make a difference. For example, consider what you are passionate about and identify where your abilities might assist. You’ll also want to be clear on the amount of time you can commit and think through issues such as transportation and expectations. Then, ask friends and family about possible prospects, find opportunities online at websites like Idealist or LinkedIn, or reach out to organizations directly to learn about their needs.

So, during the hustle and bustle of the holiday, if you want to feel happy, work off extra calories, or protect your memory, remember that volunteering can help you do all that. Even while you help others.