This (link and pasted below) is an article form the July/August 2009 issue of Men’s Health magazine, about the benefits of volunteering. Plenty of folks weigh in on actual mental and physical health benefits from reaching out to others.
I admit I’m jealous–I wanted to write this article. It’s a little lad magaziney in style, but good for them. If you still hang on to any doubt about whether you can make the time…how can you not?
The Benefits of Volunteerism
What We Get from Giving
Want to become more attractive to the opposite sex, improve your self-esteem, boost your immunity, stave off depression, and feel more connected? Sign up! Man’s best friend? One of the author’s volunteer gigs involved walking shelter dogs. It was a howl.
Reported by: Grant Stoddard, Photographs by: Mackenzie Stroh
Reaching age 30 seems as good a moment as any to repay my karmic loan. There were rough patches in my 20s, but as of late life’s been good. Really good. Good enough that I find myself wanting to give back. I’ve helped the occasional blind person across the street, tossed change to homeless people, and let a shopper with just one or two items move ahead of me at the market. But I can’t help thinking I’ve hardly scratched the surface. What I need is to be gooder faster.
To that end, I’ve decided to become zealous in my altruism, to mount an attack on apathy and selfishness. I want to send my good-deeds-per-day count through the roof.
It so happens that a desire to help my fellow man ought to come naturally. Emerging science contends that do-gooding is hardwired into our brains — most of our brains, anyway. According to the neuroscientist Donald W. Pfaff, Ph. D., specific brain signals induce us to consider our actions as if they were directed at ourselves. Pfaff, head of the laboratory of neurobiology and behavior at the Rockefeller University, wrote the book The Neuroscience of Fair Play: Why We (Usually) Follow the Golden Rule.
That’s right: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is an actual piece of hard coding that probably helped our species get its shit together, as opposed to us flinging it at one another. This “mensch impulse” is reinforced by a surge of feel-good chemicals (serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine) that your brain produces when you make yourself available for someone else. They’ll give you the warm fuzzies and boost immunity to stave off illness.
So I know helping others is in the best interests of my mind, body, and spirit. What I don’t know is how to start.
The brief orientation at New York Cares is filled with women. Given the setting, one might extrapolate that these are good women. Given their apparent abundance of free time, it’s likely they are single women. Doing something beautiful, I infer, could result in bumping uglies. Suddenly, being good doesn’t seem so bad.
The organization has made it easy: Go online and choose from a gamut of projects, from reading to children to beautifying public places, playing sports with teenagers to helping people learn English. I click on enough of them to summon the spirit of Mother Teresa, and then receive my marching orders.
Friends are unimpressed. Can’t make their party, I tell them — helping the needy that night.
“Oh, for an article, you mean?” they say.
“Well, it could be,” I say. “But first and foremost, it’s because I need to give something back.”
“Cool,” they say. “Good luck with the article.”
It appears my week with New York Cares will also be an opportunity to redeem my reputation.
Improving a school (Building hope)
New York Cares projects fall into two categories: giving immediate care to people, and doing something to foster hope or to help end the cycle of poverty.
My first is the second kind: Today we’re going to paint a mural in a Bronx school. An artist has already sketched it out in a fourth-floor hallway. I and the seven other volunteers simply need to paint inside the lines. All seven are women in their 20s; all are cute. I’m not sure whether my pretending to be a “good guy” has any bearing on how they perceive me. But I’m feeling warm toward my fellow volunteers — wonderful people (who happen to be cute) spending a Saturday morning painting a mural for middle schoolers in a bad part of town.
“Oh my Lord,” says a teacher who stops by to look at our vaguely psychedelic fresco. “I can’t wait to see the kids’ faces when they see this on Monday morning!”
The seven cute women and I are beaming. It’s the chemicals — not from the paint fumes, but from our work.
Neuroscientists have noticed that the same regions of the brain that are turned on when we receive money will glow even brighter when we give money to nonprofit organizations.
“Brain areas concerned with reward, bonding, and future goals all become activated,” says Jordan Grafman, Ph. D., a neuroscientist who researches the phenomena for the National Institutes of Health. The chemical reactions, he says, “help us plan into the future, feel emotionally closer to others, and give us a sense of reward after a behavior — which reinforces that behavior, making it more likely we will do the same thing again.”
It’s a cycle — only virtuous, not vicious.
Feeding the hungry (Peace of mind)
A group of homeless men are huddled in the doorway of St. Bartholomew’s church when I arrive on a rainy Monday at 6 a. m. Team leader Pat Gilligan, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, shakes my hand and leads me into a room where I find two dozen loaves of white bread and vats of peanut butter and jelly.
I’m joined by a literary agent (pretty!) and a guy with his own software company. As we slather on the sandwich fillings, they tell me they find the St. Bart’s gig a good way to start their work-week. “I can feel that I’ve done something to help, and it gives me peace of mind the rest of the week,” says Jen, the agent.
That feeling of mutual benefit comports with the science. Helping others, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph. D., “has a cascade of positive consequences, all of which serve to enhance happiness.” She is a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside and the author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want.
“Being helpful leads you to feel like a generous, good person, to hold a more charitable perspective of other people,” she says. For example, upon encountering a homeless man, you’re more likely to think about his tough life than dismiss him as a drunk. You’ll also feel others’ gratitude and (here comes that self-interest again) “you’ll make friends or acquaintances that might later reciprocate in your times of need.”
A volunteer organizes the serving line, which extends into the street, and hands out our sandwiches. Another volunteer ladles out chili. We handle requests for cornflakes, milk, juice, and coffee.
One volunteer, Matt, wears an apron over a sharp-looking suit. Like most of the others, he’ll be heading to the office after this. He tells me feeding the homeless puts everyday work stresses into perspective. Some of the guests have matted hair, dirty faces, and filthy clothing held together with string and patched with garbage bags. Some wear ties, shirts, and sweater vests. “They’re not all homeless,” explains Pat. “Some of them have jobs but the pay doesn’t go quite far enough, so they come to places like St. Bart’s.”
This is a place where no questions are asked, no judgments made. That unconditional charity strikes me deeply. The diners are orderly and respectful. We volunteers buzz around with a strong sense of purpose. One gentlemen asks me to fetch him several containers of milk and some extra sandwiches, explaining that they’re for his family. “It’s okay if they ask for more,” Pat tells me.
By 8:30 a. m., 135 people have passed through. Tables are broken down, aprons removed, and the volunteers say goodbye.
This is in-the-trenches altruism. You see your contribution make another person’s life just a little less dreadful, if only for an hour or two. A few times I find myself petrifi ed, but I snap to when someone calls for a little more food. I could do this.
Teaching citizenship (Helper’s high)
I’m feeling compassion for the Chinese couple in front of me. They want to become U. S. citizens, but they have trouble with English. I’m here in Queens, eager to help teach them. I’m still a British subject and hope to take the citizenship test myself someday.
Many theories exist about altruism. There is evidence that humans can help selflessly, says Gregory Webster, Ph. D., a psychologist at the University of Florida. But, he says, “there is also evidence that many altruistic acts in humans and animals are fundamentally self-serving.” Meaning we expect something in return. Some psychologists, Webster notes, think “perceived oneness” — that is, seeing yourself in others — is a better predictor of altruistic behavior.
I’m perceiving plenty of oneness as I sit across a desk from the Chinese man and woman. We run through a hundred questions about U. S. history, governmental responsibilities, the exhilarating workings of the judiciary system, and on and on. Despite the language struggles, they both nail almost every question. (What is the name of the national anthem? In what year was the Constitution written?)
Then the questions on the citizenship application become awkward, excessively familiar. I find myself asking these lovely people if they’ve ever been prostitutes, mental patients, or implicated in the deeds of the Third Reich or any other totalitarian regime. Thankfully, they answer in the negative.
We have a few laughs. I’m thinking I’ve done a fantastic job when I’m pulled aside by the project leader. “I’m glad you have fun,” she says sternly. “But you supposed to be like immigration official. They not so funny.” Despite the critique, I leave Queens feeling quite good. Volunteering is a form of therapy, I think.
Indeed it is, confirms Amy Rubenstein, Ph. D., a clinical psychologist based in Manhattan. She has been prescribing doing the right thing for some time. Research shows that helping others and developing compassion for others actually relieves your own suffering, says Rubenstein, an instructor at the Weill Cornell Medical College.
Volunteering helps her patients “get out of their own heads, to broaden their perspectives,” she says. “There is something called ‘helper’s high,’ when people can actually feel stronger, more energetic, and more motivated after helping others even in the smallest ways. When people feel like this, they’re actually able to cope better with the stress in their daily lives.”
Walking shelter dogs (Purebred altruism?)
I’m not a dog person. I find them to be disgusting creatures, by and large. My girlfriend is jonesing for a puppy, however, and that’s partly the reason I signed up as a volunteer dog walker at the Brooklyn Animal Resource Coalition (BARC, a rough pun). It’s a no-kill shelter, so some of these dogs will have to be cared for and exercised for years.
I can smell the shelter from half a block away. Through the window I see the dogs. I’d imagined mutts, but almost all are pit bulls — a statement breed in tough neighborhoods, or fodder for illegal dogfights, says Howard Wu, the project’s volunteer leader. Rarely spayed or neutered, “they end up being rescued by BARC,” he says.
Howard pairs me with Eli, who excitedly springs out onto the street. Eli has kennel stink all over him, and I squirm as he licks my exposed skin. I’m given a few plastic bags and, praying I won’t need them, we set off.
This is my only nonhominid volunteer project. I understand how people find it easy to be kind to our furry friends. Is this a purer form of altruism, perhaps, as it is untainted by what we might receive in return? And it starts me thinking: Are we alone in the animal kingdom in acting in the interests of others? Could be.
“Mammalian mothers in particular feed, defend, and care for their offspring in a very self-sacrificial way,” says Carlos David Navarrete, Ph. D., a psychology professor at Michigan State University. Chimpanzees can act altruistically toward nonrelatives, he says, but “humans may be unique in that we engage in group altruistic behavior that does not get ‘paid back’ through the genes of one’s kin or through the help of a reciprocating friend or other associate.”
Eli takes a crap and I pick it up while battling a protracted gagging fit. Seconds later a coltish 20something girl walks by and says, “Cute dog!” I don’t have “game” at the best of times, and with tearing eyes and a bag of warm feces in my hands, I consider it a victory that I don’t throw up. Eli and I return to the shelter.
Gambling with old folks (Elevated self-esteem)
I’m in another room full of women. This time, very old women. It’s casino night at a Manhattan nursing home. For many of the residents, volunteers like me are the only visitors they receive; we’re surrogate family.
“Residents on this floor won’t be here much longer,” says Jayne, the project’s leader, struggling to keep her composure. She’s been here every week for 12 years and seen hundreds of men and women reach the end of their lives. She takes me to each of the warm, humid, and unfamiliarly odiferous floors to collect stragglers.
“How are you doing, sweetie?” Mary, one of the residents, says to me.
“I’m doing good,” I reply.
“No honey, Superman does good,” she corrects me with a wink. “You’re doing well.”
Some of the residents are in advanced states of dementia. Others try out new material on me. Jayne begins a welcoming spiel that residents barely endure. “C’mon! Let’s go!” urges one woman, eyes shut, making the volunteers chuckle. A simplified game of roulette begins, complete with cheaters and chintzy prizes. “Just what in the hell am I gonna do with this thing?” shouts Mary, inspecting a yo-yo.
A spirited game of hangman breaks out. Bertha, a cheery woman who’d earlier softly sung an achingly beautiful rendition of “You Made Me Love You,” chats with me. She grew up a few blocks from where I live on the Lower East Side. “I was good-looking then,” she says. “I had many experiences with men.” Seeing a wheelchair-bound octogenarian, it’s easy to forget that not too long ago, that old man was just like me. Once engaged, they regale me with tales that melt the generation gap. Bertha is fun.
There is more hangman, more roulette, dessert, a sing-along with resident Julio on harmonica, and finally the participants are wheeled back to their rooms.
I don’t know if it’s this heart-wrenching project in particular, or the cumulative effects of my week of do-gooding, but I feel the positive effects that Rubenstein hinted at. These include feeling more competent and effective; feeling socially integrated and connected to others; and having increased confidence to cope with stress by shifting the focus to others. Pharmaceutical companies should be worried.
“I believe volunteering is helpful in reducing depression, increasing self-esteem, and creating a greater sense of meaning in our lives,” says Rubenstein. “When we nurture others, we nurture ourselves.”
It’s been a heady week. in addition to painting the mural, feeding the homeless, teaching the immigrants, walking the dogs, and chatting with the old folks, I helped students prep for the SAT (sorry about the math, guys). I sat with painfully shy kids who read aloud to nonjudgmental dogs (no pit bulls this time).
And I helped a man called John prepare a resume with a 15-year gap that involved incarceration. He was articulate and charismatic. He wanted to be a janitor, and we prettied up the resume. “I really appreciate that you made yourself available,” he said. “I hope one day I can be doing well enough to be able to help other people.”
His reaction has stayed with me. Since completing this assignment, I admit I haven’t volunteered for anything. My friends were rightly suspicious — the work was for this article. But the experience did change my attitude. I’m more inclined to put myself in others’ shoes. I was surprised to learn that my skill set could be useful to others, and that my comfort level was, well, comfortable — for me and for the people I helped.
Gregory Webster, the University of Florida psychology professor, notes that while heroic acts of kindness toward strangers attract media attention, routine charity efforts tend to go unnoticed. “They’re almost expected to take place,” he says. “That is, they’re woven into our cultural tapestry as social norms. It’s the small, everyday acts of interpersonal helping behavior that have contributed in part to humans becoming a dominant species on the planet.”
I’ve since moved out of the city, so I no longer face constant reminders of the less fortunate. I’ve donated money instead of time, now knowing that a little help will have a big impact. And with the economy slumping, I know that almost anyone, friends included, could suddenly be in need of an altruistic act.
Before, I might have dismissed those in need of help as somehow separate from my life. I have changed in my understanding of how we as members of a society sink or swim together. And my respect has grown infinitely for the volunteers who quietly make the world a better place. I hope I can live up to their example. As long as it doesn’t involve dogs.
Are You Ready To Help?
Start now, feel better instantly
The organization I signed up with is New York Cares, a clearinghouse for an endless variety of projects. It served as the model for what became the Hands On Network. Go to handsonnetwork.org and click on “Action Centers” to find a center near you.
Everything is online. For example, at volunteermatch.org, typing in a random zip code and the word “animals” produced opportunities including finding homes for stray cats and grooming pigs.
AmeriCorps is the government organization that mobilizes people for everything from disaster relief to helping the homeless. Americorps.gov has a matching tool.
Many volunteers put their skills to work (a teacher who tutors, for example). On the other hand, “lots of people find the biggest reward in getting out of their comfort zone,” says Siobhan Dugan, a spokeswoman for the Corporation for National Community Service. “Look for an experience you wouldn’t otherwise have.”