Volunteering in the New Year: 7 Tips for Making it Stick

As the holidays approach, many of us are looking forward to slowing down, spending time with family and getting some time to reflect.  Such reflection often includes brainstorming new intentions for how we want to improve our lives in the coming year.  For some, that bulleted list will include volunteering.  Maybe it’s been a meaningful practice in the past and they’ve gotten away from it?  Or, maybe they are a newbie and have been wanting to try it out?  Like all resolutions, the question is – will it stick?

In our work with clients, we spend considerable time interviewing employees who have a vested interest in seeing volunteerism flourish at their company.  Typically, these are folks who somewhere along the way have had the opportunity to fall in love with volunteering, and therefore, desire to see their company’s program develop.  After a day of interviews, I am always struck by the passion of these folks.  It’s not everyone we talk to, but for many, getting hooked on volunteering has changed their life and the energy they ooze while talking about it is infectious.

But, what’s their secret?  How did they get hooked? Since many forms of helping can be rather mundane and ordinary, we may wonder – is there a type of volunteering that is more likely to be transformative and, therefore, endure as a regular practice?  In an entry posted a few months ago, we noted a study revealing when people volunteer on regular basis, they experience “the helper’s high” – an immediate euphoric sensation that accompanies the act of helping, followed by a longer-lasting, heightened sense of calm and emotional well-being. The study also revealed that when volunteering is done frequently, as part of a weekly rhythm, these positive feelings began to endure and induce other health benefits like stress alleviation, pain reduction, strengthened immune function, mood elevation, and heightened self-esteem.[1]

But, as the author the study, Alan Luks, observes, “the value of the study is not so much in its novelty as in its explanation of how helping improves health and what kinds of volunteering produce the greatest benefits.” If you are wanting to making volunteering in 2013 a regular practice, here are some good guidelines to help you make it stick.

  1. Connect with real people.  Volunteering that is more likely to bring on the well-being associated with the helper’s high involves personal contact with real people, over that which is less personal like stacking chairs or collecting canned goods. The forming of a genuine bond with another person is the basis of the good that comes to the helper.  The focus needs to be on moments of relational connectedness, not how much we accomplish.  When there is a genuine bond of empathy, there is a healing that occurs for the both the helper and the one being helped.  In Luks’ survey, the helpers with personal contact were more likely to report experiencing the helper’s high as well as increases in self-esteem and the physical signs of stress reduction.
  2. Do it often.  Not surprisingly, gaining the most out of helping depends on how often we do it.  Luks’ study showed that the more often people volunteered, the more often they experienced the helper’s high and reported good health.  The ideal frequency is about two hours per week.  Building these two hours into your weekly rhythm is a pro-social behavior that seems to lead to a more helpful attitude toward others the rest of the week, which helps the benefits to cascade.
  3. Help strangers.  Another curious finding of Luks’ survey was that assisting strangers was more likely to elicit the helper’s high than helping family and friends.  Luks suggest that “in coming to the aid of a stranger, we get to decide for ourselves whether to help or not and how to proceed.  That sense of freedom is a great boost to our sense of self-control, which is another factor that determines how much stress we feel.”[2]  This relates to a point that we often make at RW about the need for the volunteer to move from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation in order to really get hooked on the experience.  “Have to” volunteering doesn’t sustain the volunteer over the long haul.  There is something powerful about a freely given act that is pure gift (not under compulsion) that leads to rush of good feeling and the possibility of getting hooked on the experience.
  4. Find a shared problem. When the helper and the helpee have something in common, like having the same illness or having gone through a similar ordeal, the feeling of bonding and the sense of achievement is greater.  Our capacity for empathy is shaped by our experiences.  If your own experience tells you something about the experience of the other, then you are in a position to have more empathy and experience the affiliated connection more powerfully.
  5. Pick something you are good at.  When the skills of the volunteer and the challenges are a good fit, the volunteer is more likely to experience increased confidence, feelings of self-control, and a sense of genuine usefulness.  So, for example, if you are skilled in managing money, maybe helping others build a budget and a system for managing it would be a great way to feel like you are genuinely useful.
  6. Work at it.  Exerting some kind of effort is also critical to the benefits of volunteering.  Not unlike exercise, we often begin with some ambivalence, but the effort actually surprises us by generating energy and vitality.  Volunteering that requires some form of real exertion is more likely to bring benefits, than activities where we are passive or observant.
  7. Let go of results.  In order for get the most out of your volunteering, you have to let go of results.  If you are type-A and have to see results at every turn, volunteering will probably frustrate you more than anything, leading to something like the ‘helper’s low.’  Making an impact is a worthy goal, but we have to hold that goal loosely lest we burnout and lest we turn people into objects.  As Luks insists, if you want to experience vitality through your volunteering, “you must simply enjoy the feeling of closeness to the person you’re trying to assist.  That’s the only thing that works.”[3]  The health-benefits come from the way bonding can be experienced in the act of volunteering.

So, by all means, put it on your list and make it stick!  Happy Holidays!  See you in the new year.

Brent Croxton is a Program Developer for Realized Worth. Want to talk more with him about employee volunteering and the multiple benefits? Contact him at brentcroxton@realizedworth.com. General questions for Realized Worth? contact@realizedworth.com or (855) 926-4678.

[1] Luks, Allan., Payne, Peggy. (2001). The Healing Power of Doing Good.   San Jose: iUniverse.com. p. 48.

[2] Ibid., p. 119.

[3] Ibid., p. 121

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