Can Volunteering Help Combat Loneliness?
It’s the condition now being referred to as an epidemic in the UK, represented by its own minister in parliament. And no wonder, with almost a fifth of the British population struggling to cope with loneliness and isolation (and almost two thirds afraid to say anything about it). If you sense you might be experiencing it, you’re certainly not on your own.
But considering how commonplace loneliness has become in our culture, does that mean we should just get on with? Not necessarily. In fact, recent medical journals say loneliness in on par with smoking and obesity because it increases the risk of heart disease, blood pressure and stress on the body. With its effects now being likened to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, medical professionals have woken to the physical threat that loneliness can have.
Surely, we can avoid feeling lonely by going out and socialising. But that’s often easier said than done. Making friends becomes harder as we grow older, and outside of work and family, there are fewer opportunities to mingle and meet new people.
That’s where activities like volunteering can help. By surrounding yourself with people who share your passion and enthusiasm for a cause, you’re allowing yourself the opportunity to build those lasting connections.
Not totally convinced? Let’s explore some of the ways volunteering can help you cope with loneliness.
1. Volunteering is good for your health
First, it’s a scientifically proven mood-booster. For years now, we’ve been aware of the physiological as well as psychological effects of altruism on the body, as charitable acts spark a release of dopamine commonly known as the ‘helper’s high’.
According to a study conducted by assistant professor of Psychology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Dr Katherine Nelson, ‘people are often encouraged to “treat themselves” as a way to feel good, yet our findings suggest that the best way to feel happy is to treat someone else instead’.
The study found that those who took part in charity work experienced more positivity than those who didn’t, all contributing to a healthier mental state. Where loneliness inflicts chronic stress on the body, volunteering actively reduces it. In fact, many people who go out of their way to do good experience considerably less stress and less stress-related illnesses as a result.
In another study by Thomson Reuters, it was found that recent widows who spent two hours a week volunteering felt less socially isolated. In this case, volunteering helped overcome the loneliness brought on by a sense of identity misplacement. It encouraged more social interaction and positively impacted their self-esteem by giving them a newfound sense of community.
But none of these facts should come as a surprise. Volunteering presents the rare occasion for you to throw yourself into a cause you care deeply about, meet like-minded people and see the tangible results of your actions shaping the world for the better.
2. Volunteering can ward off loneliness at all ages
It would be naïve to think that loneliness only affects an aged population. According to a recent YouGov poll, almost one-third of millennials always (or often) feel lonely, making them the loneliest generation. And the reason? They don’t have the hobbies or interests that provide opportunities to meet new people. This is where volunteering fills a much-needed space.
But there’s no age limit when it comes to volunteering, and it can do wonders for teens looking to build better social skills. According to the NCVO, teens are more likely to engage with volunteering if they sign up with a friend. And isolated or ‘hard to reach’ teens are more receptive to volunteering if they take part in informal tasks where they can form relationships with staff workers, like handing out hot drinks or helping run activities.
In cases like these, volunteering can help boost a young person’s confidence and open up new friendship circles in environments outside of school or college.
For others later in life, volunteering can serve as a great catalyst for connection for when you’re in a new environment and looking for a community, or whether you’re simply looking for more intimate local friendships.
30 years ago, I moved from my hometown with my then partner to a new town where I didn’t know anyone. We had moved for his job, and although I had been job hunting, I had been unable to find something before I moved and needed something to not only fill my time but also to feel ‘visible’. I volunteered at the British Heart Foundation shop and really enjoyed the camaraderie, friendships and loved my new role as a volunteer. After a while I found a paid role and then sometime later came back to that shop as the manager! I am still in touch with a friend from that shop and I believe that volunteering role saved me from isolation and loneliness that I was feeling at the time.
Community member at CharityConnect
3. Volunteering can provide more social opportunities in retirement age
As many hard-working befriending charities confirm, social isolation amongst the elderly still remains widespread. 3.6 million older people in the UK live alone, and nearly 2 million feel invisible or ignored. That’s why having a sense of community is so important, and volunteering can offer that for many people long into their retirement years.
Volunteering is an opportunity to stimulate both your body and your mind, and it’s been shown to ward off degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and functional decline, both of which are listed under long-term effects of loneliness. What’s more, volunteering presents the occasion for more inter-generational friendships and gives people a new-found sense of purpose when they’re suddenly faced with limited opportunities to be social. Above all, it creates new social networks for those who wouldn’t otherwise be part of a community.
How can volunteering help you?
Volunteering could just be the next wonder drug. But just like diet and exercise, medical experts advise that only real effects can be seen if the volunteering is done regularly and often, so choose a cause that you’re passionate about and that fits with your lifestyle.
There are tons of causes that are trailblazing change in the world and could do with your help. With over 3,000 opportunities to choose from, you’re bound to find something you’d roll up your sleeves for.
Find out what volunteering opportunities are available today.