The Completely Selfish Reason Why You Should Start Volunteering Today
Illustration by Ms Ana Yael
Every Wednesday morning, I get on my bicycle and cycle into town. I wheel my bike up a busy shopping street and when a gap in the foot traffic gives me room to manoeuvre, I secure it against a lamppost outside a local charity shop that sells secondhand books. I’ve been coming here for more than a year and a half – give or take a handful of lockdown months when the shop was closed – and every time the experience is the same.
I sign in at the till and the woman there asks me how my dog is, suggesting, after I once said he was moping about and not eating, that he is depressed. I smile and say, “Perhaps.” Depression is something I’d recognise.
Upstairs, two or three staff members will be sorting through donations. Each dusty cardboard box is an insight into a faceless person’s life. Some are filled with out-of-date self-help books or road maps of Italy from the 1980s. Some (many) are filled with books about succeeding in business or European history. Occasionally, we receive beautiful hardcover collections of writers such as Mr Evelyn Waugh or Ms Maya Angelou.
An older man in his seventies, my friend, has called me “Rob” for as long as I’ve volunteered there. I let it go. Others like to talk about the weather, what their week entailed, conspiracy theories, Covid. Most of the time, I am the youngest person there, sometimes not. We are all very different people. Not everyone cares about books, but whomever I’m working with, this four hours a week is exactly what I need.
I don’t volunteer at a charity shop because I care a lot about building schools or providing clean drinking water to those in need (I do, of course) or because I want a pat on the back (I don’t. Honestly). I do it because in late 2019, confined to my home office five days a week, I found myself losing my mind. I’d struggled with my mental health since becoming a freelance writer in 2017. Without the background swirl of office stress to distract me, I found the silence of my flat at 2.00pm on a Tuesday terrifying and my anxiety was free to flourish.
“One of the most common mental health issues that the past 14 months have thrown up is a dramatic increase in feelings of loneliness and isolation”
By 2019, with the help of medication, therapy, friends and an incredibly supportive girlfriend, I was feeling OK again. Then, suddenly, I began to get scared to leave the house, even to speak to staff in shops. What I needed, my then-girlfriend said, was something to take my mind off myself. Some structure to at least one afternoon a week. And a feeling of having achieved something, even when my freelance writing career was enjoying a dry spell.
It turns out she was right.
“Researchers from the University of Limerick found that, when looking into the cognitive benefits of volunteering, volunteers noted a boost in their mental health and feelings of positivity from social contact, group or organisation membership and social support provision,” says Mr Niels Eék, a psychologist and co-founder at the mental health app Remente.
Spending four hours a week behind a till or sorting through donations with retirees and college students isn’t the most difficult thing in the world, but overcoming my anxiety to step through the door for that first shift was tough. It turned out, though, that many of the volunteers were there for the same reason as me. Some felt lonely. Some needed a sense of purpose. Some had struggled with their mental health in the past and wanted, in some small way, to put some goodness back into the world.
It’s a problem that’s been thrown into sharp relief with the Covid lockdowns. “One of the most common mental health issues that the past 14 months have thrown up is a dramatic increase in feelings of loneliness and isolation,” says Eék. “Findings from a recent study found that being a volunteer alleviates feelings of loneliness and is a way of finding new meaning. It leaves volunteers feeling personally rewarded and simultaneously emotionally challenged.”
A study published in the Journal Of Happiness Studies also found that people who gave their time regularly to volunteer noted higher levels of wellbeing, due to having regular stimulation and social interaction.
It’s something Mr Luke Rose-Smith knows well. Along with his wife, Lucy, Rose-Smith co-founded the business Pets Against Plastic during lockdown, which sells plastic-free and eco-friendly pet products. They also regularly volunteer their time to clean up plastic from their local beach, a pastime Rose-Smith describes as meditative.
“I have been working from home for 14 months now and my mental health has really struggled, to the point of needing therapy and medication,” he says. “We set up this business to help make a difference in our local area back in February. Since then, it’s really improved my mental health because it gives me an enormous sense of wellbeing and pride that I can actually have a big impact on my local environment. Volunteering gives me a chance to completely tune out my world while spending 30 to 60 minutes in the calm of the beach collecting litter.”
“In my experience, the best way to start volunteering is to find something you’re interested in and go for it”
Mr Rob Delaney is a lawyer. He has been volunteering with the charity Round Table, which puts on local fairs and events to raise money for good causes, for eight years. Recently, he has helped with providing vaccine marshals at a local GP surgery, loaning equipment to schools or charities and helping set up the village fun run. As well as the feeling of contributing to society, Delaney says he has found community with the other Round Table volunteers.
“When I started, I was going through a stressful time at work and, despite a very supportive family, was feeling pretty low,” he says. “Being part of this group has made a huge difference.”
Charities are always looking for volunteers and, with the benefits of volunteering supported by an increasing number of studies, it may be worth giving it a go if you’re not quite feeling yourself at the moment.
“I think the two most common excuses/objections that we hear are, ‘It looks like a lot of work,’ or ‘I don’t have the time,’” says Delaney.
In my experience, the best way to start volunteering is to find something you’re interested in and go for it. As well as journalism, I write fiction and am a keen reader, so a book shop was an ideal place for me to spend an afternoon.
Realistically, most of us can manage just a few hours a week to volunteer; that’s just a few less episodes on Netflix. And the best part is, because it’s volunteer work, you can do it on your terms.
“As to how much work is involved, that’s up to you,” says Delaney. “You can put in as little or as much as you want, but the key thing is that there will be mates around to help you and, crucially, who want to help you, in the same way that you will want to help them.”
Then, of course, in my case at least, there was the desperate need to do something. The completely selfish desire to get out of my flat and my head and interact with actual human beings, if only for an afternoon.
And, for those who find overt displays of altruism distasteful, Eék has something to say. “While it may feel as though you are signalling your virtuosity by giving your time freely to help others, charities and organisations need people like you to continue the good work that they do,” he says. “According to the Charity Commission, there are more than 168,000 registered charities in England and Wales, which benefit millions across the UK and all around the world. The work that volunteers and charities alike do is essential. You should feel proud to be a part of it.”
Volunteering has certainly helped my mental health. Covid aside, for the most part, I don’t feel as bad now as when I began volunteering 18 months ago. Most weeks, I even look forward to it. Maybe next week I’ll take my dog along. I’m sure it would help him feel better, too.