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Does Volunteering Your Time Really Help Anyone?

How volunteerism impacts the life of the volunteer

The increasingly stretched-out holiday season is underway. It's easy to feel a bit cynical about people who suddenly want to become a "volunteer." Charity organizations often wince at the prospect of receiving more offers of help than they can handle. "Where were you the rest of the year?" they often mutter, silently.

To be fair, many people are more than once or twice a year volunteers. In fact, volunteering time, service and expertise it's on the rise among all age groups. For many, it's an integral part of their lives, an expression of their core values. That raises an intriguing question: How does volunteering time and service impact the life of the volunteer?

In recent years I've researched this a bit through seminars the Center for Progressive Development has conducted for volunteers who want to explore how volunteer work affects their personal and professional lives.

Overall, we've found that volunteer activity often reshapes or redirects people's values, perspectives, and even their life goals. For many, it spurs new growth, both spiritually and emotionally. Sometimes the changes are slight, but clear - like committing oneself to continued work with a particular cause or mission. In other cases, the impact of volunteer work is more dramatic: Changing the company one works for, or changing careers altogether. Or, leaving one's relationship when a "values gap" became so sharpened that the relationship could no longer endure.

Of course, the act of volunteering is not the only source of life changes. But we've found that the volunteer experience does seem to initiate a deeper reexamination of one's own life, and that can lead to some unanticipated consequences. That makes sense to me, because many successful, career-oriented men and women openly acknowledge feelings of inner emptiness, of lack of meaning or real human connection in their lives. Those who volunteer sometimes discover that their volunteer work is the only kind of engagement in their lives that feels meaningful to them -- often greater than their career; sometimes more so than their intimate relationships. And that's a disruptive experience, hard to ignore.

I've heard similar observations from my psychotherapy patients, as well, over the years. I think what happens is that volunteer experiences often trigger a new awakening -- for example, to your need for positive, authentic connection, or to the reality that beneath surface differences, we're all one; all organs of the same body, so to speak. Interestingly, studies of death camp survivors during the Holocaust have found that most of those who survived attempted to help others in the camps survive, not just themselves.

That all life is interconnected and interdependent has become ever-more apparent in today's post 9-11, post-economic-meltdown world, where a small change anywhere can affect your personal security and well-being. Volunteerism strengthens your fundamental connection with other lives. It broadens your perspective about your own life dilemmas in relation to those of others, and it helps you become more flexible in changing circumstances. Keep in mind that psychological health and resilience includes the capacity for positive engagement and connection with the diverse human community, and for managing your life in the unpredictable world we live in.

In fact, volunteerism is really just a more organized form of something all of us do all the time, every day. You're always giving of yourself - an expression of empathy -- in some way, in some relationship, all the time, as parent, partner, worker, or citizen of the planet. In that sense you're always "volunteering," though you may not call it that when it feels like a "natural" function.

An example of that perspective is found in the Buddhist tradition, in which compassionate action is thought of as a natural expression of connection. It's like when you cut your finger, you don't deliberate about whether to bandage it; or dither over the cost-benefit equation. You know it's part of you, and you just do it.

Whatever you "practice" in daily life always becomes stronger - for better or for worse. When you volunteer, you're rectifying some of the damage from the disconnection and self-interest that pervades our culture today, and that fuels so much of the intolerance and fear rising in our tumultuous, unpredictable world. Through service to others you're defining the kind of person you want to be. And that's the one choice you always have in life - in each moment, in each decision, in every new encounter.

Some Suggestions For Volunteers

Many organizations open to volunteerism - at any time of the year. Here are two national organizations that provide links to volunteer opportunities in your local area:
My blog: Progressive Impact
Web Site: Center for Progressive Development
© 2010 Douglas LaBier