Volunteering Can Combat Loneliness and Boost Your Mental Health—Just Consider These 5 Things Before You Start

UPDATED: February 17, 2024
PUBLISHED: February 17, 2024
Volunteer putting a jacket on an elderly woman in need learning how volunteering helps mental health

When Kathy Keating moved to a new town, she turned to volunteering to help her meet people. Yet her experience volunteering for Hospice Help Foundation offered her more than just a conduit for making friends. “I felt a little more three-dimensional,” says Keating, founder and principal at ProsInComms, a Boston area public relations firm for B2B tech companies.

How volunteering can help mental health

Research shows that volunteering helps mental health by reducing stress and increasing positive thoughts. Last year, when the U.S. Surgeon General published an advisory that Americans are becoming increasingly lonely and isolated, he cited volunteerism as a means to combat loneliness and strengthen social infrastructure.

“When we give back through volunteering, we feel like we matter; we feel like there’s meaning in our lives,” says Deborah Heiser, Ph.D., founder and CEO of The Mentor Project.

In fact, our brains have a chemical reaction to volunteering—it can increase circulating levels of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins in the brain and activate the reward centers associated with pleasure. “The brain sort of lights up when you’ve done something good for another person, even if that other person doesn’t acknowledge you or thank you in return,” says Natalie Silverstein, author of Simple Acts: The Busy Family’s Guide to Giving Back.

Some studies have shown that people who volunteer experience decreased stress levels, less depression and less anxiety, and that is why their overall health and satisfaction with life is boosted, says Kelly McKinell, MD, a physician at the Center for Adult Behavioral Health at Cleveland Clinic Florida.

5 things to consider before volunteering to help your mental health

However, before you call your favorite local charity and offer to help, it’s important to consider what you hope to achieve by volunteering.

1. Make sure it sparks joy

Volunteer work should speak to something you enjoy doing, not feel burdensome, Silverstein says. “You should have a good feeling about it when you’re done at the end of the day. If you don’t, then perhaps you’re not doing the right volunteer activity.”

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Sarah Agan recalls a volunteer experience that weighed her down. Agan became acting board president of a local nonprofit in her community. When the organization’s executive director left, Agan had to lead a 13-person search committee for the new executive director. Soon, her volunteer work was taking so much of her time that she started turning down paid work as a leadership coach and consultant. “I think I started off feeling I have things to contribute, and then all of a sudden [I was thinking], ‘This has got to get done, and this organization needs this and if I don’t do it, then what?’ And that’s when I think it became sort of egregious,” Agan says.

2. How to volunteer to help mental health: Set achievable goals

If you’re looking to volunteer to help mental health, be sure to set easy goals, McKinell says. For instance, you might want to volunteer three times a week, but perhaps realistically you can only volunteer once a week or even once a month. Even simple gestures like donating food or shoveling an elderly person’s driveway can give you the same increase in dopamine as volunteering weekly with an organization, McKinell explains.

“One of the benefits of volunteering is you’re able to do useful and productive work and have the benefit of paid work—the socialization, sense of achievement, sense of mastery—without the stress or worrying about getting fired or having to put in an eight-hour day and manage childcare,” McKinell says.

3. Volunteer work can be a one-time event

Volunteering doesn’t have to be about quantity, Heiser says. It’s the quality that matters most.  

When Julia Beck’s father was ill, she was spending a lot of time in Philadelphia, where her parents lived. Beck, the founder of It’s Working Project, a consulting firm that helps create synergistic strategies for caregivers and their workplace, decided to organize an event for the new mothers whose children were being treated at the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House. Beck used her industry contacts to arrange for each new mom to walk away with some swag—a diaper bag, a night gown and cosmetics—and to feel pampered.

Giving back helped Beck feel better about her own situation. “I felt like I was contributing, I was looking outward, I was focusing on someone else and somebody else’s situation and recognizing somebody else’s needs,” Beck says. “I couldn’t, unfortunately, change the situation of their children’s health, but I could change, even for 30 minutes, the way they were experiencing the world just for a blip. It was a moment of love and care, and that made me feel great.” 

4. Volunteer for the right reasons

Although volunteering can help you improve teamwork, communication and leadership skills, your motivation for volunteering shouldn’t be to add an item to your LinkedIn profile or to help you land a promotion. For volunteering to be meaningful for you and the organization, the motivation must come from the heart, Keating says.

If someone asked if you would like to volunteer in a soup kitchen, you would probably say yes, Heiser says. But if someone asked if you would like to work at Starbucks for free, you would probably say no. “You’re giving out food to hungry, thirsty people in both instances, but one feels like you’re a schmuck going there and putting in your time,” Heiser says. Volunteering is really about your perception of things, and the motivation must come from within you, she adds.

5. It’s OK to set boundaries

Give yourself permission to put limits on your volunteer work, Agan says. “Be clear about the personal boundaries that you need to put in place so that you can serve in a way that makes a difference to the organization and that is sustainable,” she says. Avoid making volunteering another obligation or task on your to-do list.

Before signing up to volunteer, make sure you can make the time commitment. For instance, if you’re taking care of a sick parent or if you just received a promotion, this might not be the right time. “You should never feel like, ‘Oh no, I shouldn’t have signed up for this,’” Keating says.

Photo by Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock.com

Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who writes about gender equity, diversity and inclusion, and the culture of work.