Volunteering as an Act of Healing

Author: Stephanie Frogge

“What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.” ~ Albert Pike

Altruism is defined as the practice of being concerned for and acting upon that concern for others without there being any direct benefit to the person engaging in it. For many, volunteering for a worthy cause is one way of practicing altruism even if we don’t necessarily think of it that way. A quarter of Americans volunteer their time and talent whether in their faith community, their kid’s school, in a healthcare setting, or a local organization whose cause speaks to them. Volunteering, of course, is giving of one’s time and talent without remuneration – that is, you don’t get paid. 

Volunteering in the United States is taken seriously. Data is kept on who volunteers and where. The Corporation for National and Community Service tells us that the highest percentage of volunteers reside in Utah and Minnesota and the value of volunteering as calculated by the Independent Sector is $25.43 an hour – more than $200 billion dollars a year. Countless government agencies, faith organizations and non-profit charities would be unable to achieve their mission without the contribution of altruistic people who give their time and expertise with no expectation of anything in return.

For bereaved people, volunteering is often one of those things that can, and should, be put aside until some level of equilibrium is restored. For most of us, simply getting out of bed, keeping the lights on and the children fed was the outer limit of what we could manage for a significant length of time. Bereavement counselors wisely advise against making important decisions or doing unnecessary work for a period of time in recognition of diminished energy and decision-making capacity. 


TAPS Volunteers at the National SeminarPhoto: TAPS Archives


And yet…one of the paradoxes of grief is that when you have the least amount to give to someone else, an act of altruism may actually be very helpful and healing. For some bereaved, volunteering (as opposed to random acts of kindness, which are also beneficial) becomes a valued component of their own healing journey. Scientific research is beginning to test various theories as to why that might be the case and the findings around what benefits correlate to volunteer service are intriguing. 


We Get It

Unsurprisingly, people who have had traumatic experiences have a greater sense of efficacy as it relates to helping others. In other words, people who have experienced trauma and loss know well how much an act of kindness or a helping hand can truly help someone. They are also less likely to experience what’s known as “compassion fade,” which is a tendency to become overwhelmed and therefore less likely to help in the face of large-scale or reoccurring need. 


Physical and Mental Health Benefits

Volunteering has been linked to a variety of physical and mental health benefits including blood pressure regulation, a reduction in depression, and an increase in brain chemicals that reduce stress. 

A study out of Carnegie Mellon University found that among older adults (over age 50) those who volunteered regularly were less likely to develop high blood pressure. A study of volunteers in the UK found that half of those who had volunteered for at least two years reported feeling less depressed and almost ¾ of those whose volunteer work included using their professional experience and expertise also reported feeling less depressed. Volunteering may delay the onset of dementia and is linked to greater brain functioning. A Canadian study found that seniors who regularly volunteered at least one hour a week were almost two-and-a-half times less likely to develop dementia. Volunteering may even help you live longer. A study of data found that people who volunteer have lower mortality rates than those who don’t, even when controlling for age and physical health. Other studies have shown that volunteers with health conditions report a decline in pain and depression when serving as peer supporters of others suffering from a similar condition. Some research suggests that volunteering may help you keep in better physical shape.


Social Benefits

Even for those with a social network, bereavement is lonely. And with one in ten adults reporting having no close friends and almost half of Americans describing themselves as lonely, the potential social benefits of volunteering cannot be overstated. Loneliness is more detrimental to your health than obesity! Some researchers theorize that grief symptoms may be temporarily diminished simply because volunteering gives people something else to think about and do for a period of time. Other researchers suggest that being around others who are also experiencing challenges and difficulties help to keep our own loss in some perspective. Volunteering also gives us access to new friends and social networks. Strong social networks have long been known to positively impact physical and mental health. For some survivors, being in a temporary setting with people who are either unaware of or do not focus on the loss can serve as a temporary respite from being the object of unwelcome sympathy and concern.


Financial Benefits

For bereaved individuals who may be entering the job market or making a job change, volunteering may improve their hiring prospects. One study found that people who regularly volunteer have a 27% better chance of gaining employment and in another survey, 60% of hiring managers reported looking favorably upon a job candidate’s volunteer experience. Of course, volunteer work can be an opportunity to hone existing job skills, gain experience, develop new skills, learn about potential job openings, and develop career contacts that may lead to employment.


Sense of Purpose

For many survivors of traumatic loss, volunteering serves as a direct link to our loved one whether we serve as a volunteer in their honor or engage in a specific type of volunteer activity because it was an important cause or service to our deceased loved one. Volunteer opportunities can give survivors a sense of helping to prevent similar deaths such as work with a suicide prevention program or volunteering for a traffic safety initiative. Research has found that after experiencing a traumatic event, those who are able to teach or train others, or in some other way use their negative life experience to help other people coped better than those who did not have the opportunity. Even when the volunteer experience isn’t directly linked to our deceased loved one, deriving a sense of purpose while engaging in meaningful work is a component of creating a new normal. 

The potential benefits of volunteering are significant even though we cannot yet prove correlations or demonstrate direct links to beneficial outcomes. For example, it may be that people in already good physical health are more likely to volunteer and it stands to reason that if the volunteer experience involves physical activity, there will be greater physical benefit. Social interactions of any kind are shown to increase mental and physical well-being so positive effects of volunteering may be less about the volunteer work and more because of the association with like-minded people. We know that acts of helpfulness that trigger brain chemicals improving mood are not limited to those that occur in a volunteer setting. Despite these gaps in current research the over-arching premise is unmistakable: helping to make the world a better place is good for the mind, body and spirit. 


Getting Involved

If you feel you’ve got the time, energy, and interest to serve somewhere as a volunteer, take into consideration how your energy is already spent on a day-to-day basis. For example, if you’re now a single parent you may want to choose something that allows you to work alongside adults. If you work in a helping profession, you may prefer to avoid direct services. That’s not a hard and fast rule but rather something to consider as you think about where you might want to contribute. 

Finally, avoid over-committing. You don’t need to chair the gala or clear the forest (unless you really want to!); small, short-term projects and contributions are a good place to begin especially when it’s hard to predict how you will feel. The goal is to be pleased with what you’ve given, not exhausted. 

TAPS is one of those organizations that would be unable to achieve its mission without a community of dedicated volunteers who do everything from serving as military mentors to making food for seminars, raising funds, and putting stamps on angelversary cards. Each one is precious and each one helps us to care for the families of America’s fallen heroes. 

Learn how you can volunteer and support the TAPS mission, visit taps.org/volunteer.

Stephanie Frogge, MTS, TAPS Staff Associate, National Military Survivor Helpline