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Want to be more calm, confident, hopeful, healthy and frequently experience a euphoric joy on par with sexual bliss? Try volunteering. Seriously!
At Realized Worth, we help companies develop robust employee volunteer programs. Needless to say, we are very interested in what motivates people to volunteer. From our work with hundreds of volunteers and volunteer managers, we have observed a deeply meaningful epiphany that awaits those who set out to make volunteering a regular practice. Not everyone experiences it, but for those who are ready, it is life altering!
In one way or another, people who volunteer on a regular basis come to a moment when it dawns on them that the most salient description of their experience is how much they are receiving, not how much they are giving. Don’t take our word for it though. Trust the research!
The Helper’s High
According to a survey of 3,296 of people who volunteer regularly, an immediate euphoric sensation accompanies the act of helping. The “helper’s high” begins with a surge of energy and feelings of physical exhilaration. This rush is then followed by a longer-lasting, heightened sense of calm and emotional wellbeing. Participants compared the experience to intoxication, the runner’s high, an energy burst, orgasm, and the serenity following yoga. Physiologically, the high is an indication of the release of endorphins – the body’s natural opiates that relieve pain and foster wellbeing.
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. The author of the study, Alan Luks, received reports from volunteers saying they had fewer colds, diminished pain, help with insomnia and depression, quicker recovery from surgery, lessened overeating, fewer migraines, and a cure for stomach aches.
The Important Interruption
So, what’s going on here? What is it about the act of helping that is so powerful to the mind/body connection? Like meditation, the key seems to be in focusing on a point outside of yourself. Simply put, human stress and suffering is fueled by isolation and recurring thought patterns that are difficult to quiet. Volunteering interrupts our internal ruminations, draws our attention toward the people we are serving and helps us to make a tender connection. As Luks insists, “the forming of a genuine bond with another person, however short-lived, is the basis of the good that comes to the helper.” How much we accomplish in volunteering is less important than whether we feel a connection and a vicarious experience of the other person’s problems. As we increasingly experience such encounters, the body relaxes and mood-enhancing endorphins are released.
But, stress reduction is not all. In Luks’ survey, 57% of the participants experienced a feeling of greatly enhanced self-worth because they had helped someone. Somehow, the experience of being needed and feeling accepted in solidarity with other people is a powerful boost to one’s self-concept.
A Deeper Meaning
Moreover, part of growing psychologically as a human being is moving beyond the drive for power and prestige, and tapping into deeper, spiritual values like meaning, purpose and connectedness. Somewhere inside of every person is a desire to make a dent in the world’s suffering and feel spiritually connected to our fellow human beings. Volunteering at its best gives us a taste of living into those deeply held values. Consequently, we simply like ourselves better when we do it.
 Luks, Allan., Payne, Peggy. (2001). The Healing Power of Doing Good. San Jose: iUniverse.com. p. 48.
 Ibid., p. 180.
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