What Are the Mental Health Benefits of Volunteering?

Person volunteering with a donation box beside them

Halfpoint Images / Getty Images

When you spend your time volunteering, you’re certainly using your time constructively. Whether it’s building houses for Habitat for Humanity or working at a food bank on the weekends, volunteering also makes you feel good.

At the same time that you’re giving back to others, volunteering also gives you a variety of physical and mental health benefits.

What Is Volunteer Work and Why Is It Important?

When you volunteer, you freely give your time with no expectation of any compensation. Many people enjoy assisting in their community. You can also volunteer at your work place or through various charities and philanthropic organizations online. 

Altruism, which focuses on acting out of concern for others’ happiness and well-being even if it’s at a cost, might be one reason people volunteer. Driven by empathy, humans put themselves in the shoes of others facing hardships and often want to help.

Volunteering enables you to feel that you’re part of something greater than yourself. That might mean being part of your child’s education when you volunteer to put on a Career Day for the high school. Or feeling more connected to the world after the GoFundMe you set up for your Ukranian friend generates thousands of donations from across the world.

You don’t feel lonely, isolated or alone when you volunteer. Volunteering prevents you from worrying about your own battles and gives you a new perspective. It also enables you to contribute positively to the world.

Mental Health Benefits of Volunteering

Behaviors that help others are often called pro-social behaviors by psychologists. Helping a great cause is a pro-social behavior that can elevate your mood. It can also affect your health in myriad ways.

Volunteering Makes You Feel Good

Giving really does make you feel good. Your body releases endorphins which Harvard Health calls the “brain’s natural pain reliever”when you volunteer or do something you enjoy. Endorphins create a sense of well-being. Sometimes people call what you’re feeling a “helper’s high.”

Volunteering Boosts Your Happiness

Enjoyable and meaningful activities like helping others can increase your happiness. In a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies,researchers found that people who volunteer are happier than those who do not.

Using data from about 70,000 participants in the United Kingdom, scientists found that compared to participants who didn’t volunteer, those who volunteered in the past year were more satisfied with their lives. They rated their overall health as better, too.

Another outcome of the study: the researchers found that people who volunteered at least once a month reported better mental health than those who volunteered rarely or not at all.

Volunteering Reduces Loneliness and Stress

Lacking human contact or feeling alone can flood your body with cortisol. According to the Cleveland Clinic, high levels of cortisol in your system not only cause more stress, but you risk impairing your cognitive performance. You also increase your risk of developing inflammation and heart disease as well as impairing your immune system.

Volunteering Builds Friendships, Social Interaction, and Engagement

Participating in a shared activity brings people closer together. You’ll likely be actively walking and getting more exercise. You won’t be thinking about your troubles for a while and you’ll probably make new friends.

Having friends is important as friends offer emotional support, build your confidence, and help you reduce stress.

When volunteering, you’ll also become more socially engaged. Social engagement promotes brain health.

Volunteering Reduces Depression

Saying yes to a volunteer opportunity can also contribute to diminishing your rate of depression. Scientific research has shown that volunteering lowers depression levels for those over 65. So, volunteering is beneficial for seniors.

Physical Health Benefits of Volunteering

Based on one study that included adults over age 50, those who volunteered regularly were less likely to develop high blood pressure than the non-volunteering participants. High blood pressure is a key health indicator because it contributes to heart disease, stroke, and premature death.

Being of service to others and participating with others in a group to better the world can lift our spirits. It can also have real-world effects on our bodies. As you keep your brain and body active, you ward off cognitive decline and keep yourself healthy.

Ways to Volunteer

Volunteering by dropping off dinner for a sick friend is also valuable. Performing acts of kindness, like cleaning the house for your mom who worked a double shift at the hospital the night before matters, too. You don’t necessarily have to volunteer in a consistent manner.

If you do want to volunteer regularly, which has many benefits as discussed previously, there are deserving organizations that would welcome your help. In fact, some organizations, like non-profits, count on volunteers to carry out some duties due to limited funding.  

Here are possible ways you can volunteer in your community:

  • Deliver food for programs like Meals on Wheels
  • Tutor students in reading, English or math
  • Visit or play games at a senior center
  • Sing or dance in performances that raise money for your favorite charity
  • Coach at a local middle school
  • Participate in beach cleanup days for the Surfriders Foundation
  • Drive neighbors to doctor appointments
  • Mow the lawn of elderly community members
  • Restock shelves of books at your local library
  • Work on behalf of human rights organizations like Amnesty International
  • Play music for those in hospice
  • Host a neighborhood block party
  • Fundraise on disaster relief efforts for the International Red Cross
  • Help with park clean-up events
  • Serve food at a soup kitchen
  • Offer apples and oranges whenever you see the homeless
  • Help promote an animal rescue center
  • Sit on the board of your condo association
  • Facilitate activities like Bingo games at a nursing home
  • Help with a community center’s building maintenance projects

Remember that if you can’t volunteer in these ways, you might make use of a special talent or skill instead. For example, if have great tech skills, you can volunteer to be the “go to” person for an organization’s computers and printers once a week.

If you’re good at and love taking pictures, you might volunteer to submit photos for an institution’s brochure or update a charity’s website over the summer. Don’t forget that if you can’t volunteer with your time, you can also donate financially.

Digital Ways to Find Volunteer Opportunities

You can find opportunities in your community as well as online. Check out these two great organizations online to find out about amazing groups and how you can help those in need:

  • Volunteer Match is an award-winning database that has been around for over 20 years. You’ll find many ways to volunteer on the web’s largest and most popular volunteer recruiting platform. It connects a million interested volunteers per month with 130,000 nonprofits.
  • DoSomething.org is the largest not-for-profit digital platform for young people devoted to social change issues. With millions of members across the world, members join to volunteer for social change and civic action campaigns. Their goal is to make an impact on the causes they are passionate about.
5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Harvard Health Publishing. Endorphins: The Brain's Natural Pain Reliever.

  2. Lawton RN, Gramatki I, Watt W, Fujiwara D. Does Volunteering Make Us Happier, or Are Happier People More Likely to Volunteer? Addressing the Problem of Reverse Causality When Estimating the Wellbeing Impacts of Volunteering. Journal of Happiness Studies. 2021;22(2):599-624.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. What Happens in Your Body When You're Lonely?

  4. Musick MA, Wilson J. Volunteering and depression: the role of psychological and social resources in different age groupsSoc Sci Med. 2003;56(2):259-269. doi:10.1016/s0277-9536(02)00025-4

  5. Sneed RS, Cohen S. A prospective study of volunteerism and hypertension risk in older adultsPsychol Aging. 2013;28(2):578-586. doi:10.1037/a0032718

By Barbara Field
Barbara is a writer and speaker who is passionate about mental health, overall wellness, and women's issues.