The psychology of volunteering
To celebrate International Volunteer Day, we spoke to University experts in happiness, psychology and pharmacology to find out some surprising benefits of volunteering on mental health.
Australians spend a staggering 930 million hours volunteering each year. Beyond the satisfaction of helping others, there are many surprising benefits to volunteering on the health and wellbeing of volunteers.
From improving our health and happiness to promoting strong social networks, boosting mood and making friends, our experts explain the psychology behind volunteerism and why people help others they may never otherwise meet.
Volunteering is a great way to promote strong social networks. This is because of what’s called “prosocial behaviour”, which means that what we’re doing benefits other people – this can be seen in helping, sharing, donating and volunteering.
Research suggests this is a beneficial way to connect with your community and build positive relationships through creating social capital, building bonds of trust, cooperation and respect for diversity.
Volunteering is an adventure. Meeting people from different walks of life and different ways of life brings together unexpected experiences.
Helping others is also related to improved physical health, including weight control, lower blood pressure and relief from depression and chronic pain. Alumnus Dr Tim Sharp (PhD(Medicine) ’98) who is affectionately referred to as ‘Dr. Happy’ explains this result:
“When we’re helping others we’re more likely to feel good about ourselves which is, not surprisingly, a positive contributor to mental health. Mental and physical health are highly correlated so when we’re psychologically well, we’re also more likely to be physically well,” he says.
People who “give” – either money or their time – have been reported to be happier and healthier than those who don’t. Dr Rebecca Pinkus, Lecturer in Psychological Statistics says, “Volunteering keeps you in a positive mood and can help lift you out of a negative mood.”
The reason for this is that helping others triggers the reward pathway in the brain known as the mesolimbic system. It releases “feel-good” neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and vasopressin. The buzz you get from these neurotransmitters is sometimes known as “the helpers high”.
Dr Michael Bowen (BA ’08 BA(Hons) ’10 PhD ’14) is an expert on the effects of brain chemicals. He says, “Empathy has been shown to elevate oxytocin levels in blood plasma”. “With higher levels of empathy and oxytocin being associated with increased generosity."
This creates a “feel-good” cycle: oxytocin makes you more likely to be generous, being generous produces more oxytocin, which makes you more likely to continue being generous.
Ever heard of something called the ‘emotional contagion'? We hadn’t either. But as the name suggests, it’s contagious. When two people catch it, they tend to “match up” emotionally.
If a person is feeling positive and enjoying the process of giving, then this spreads across to other people nearby who become significantly more likely to give as well.
“Satisfaction with life is at least partially dependent on living a life with purpose and meaning,” says Dr Tim Sharp. “Volunteering provides both these things in spades. “We feel good about ourselves when we’re doing good to and for others.”
Dr Sharp is backed up by the OECD Better Life Index, which says volunteers tend to be more satisfied with their lives because they’re interacting with other people, setting and achieving goals, and learning new things.
Volunteering gave me a sense of purpose to give back to the University community that I value so much
There are plenty of alumni volunteering opportunities at the University to explore, from helping at graduations and welcoming our newest international students, to mentoring fellow alumni and assisting in philanthropy activities.
The University Careers Centre is a great place to start when seeking volunteer work. Check out the Careers Centre website for key information on finding volunteer opportunities, plus access volunteer roles via the Sydney CareerHub Jobs Database.