Breaking Out of Loneliness by Volunteering
Not just a quick fix for social isolation, volunteers find meaning and belonging
Posted Feb 29, 2020
Many of us have heard that volunteering is good for us. It’s been shown to buffer us from depression because it gives us a sense of purpose and engagement (Journal of Social and Personal Relationships). It’s readily recommended in social science research as a sure way to tackle loneliness and social isolation (Connect2Affect studies with AARP, and the Corporation for National and Community Service). Volunteers not only live longer, but 82 percent of older adults report that volunteering helps them feel less lonely, according to Senior Corps reports.
For fifteen years, I worked as a rehabilitation counselor serving people with mental illness, intellectual disabilities, and brain injuries. I encouraged and supported these individuals through volunteer placements, which sometimes proved challenging for them. Yet one salient, common thread was that everyone reported being proud that they showed up and got down to work, no matter how brief or small their contribution might have been.
Even if the experience was not a “good match” for the long haul, or if the managers were flaky, or if the social benefits were minimal, everyone could claim that they were brave enough to give it a go. It was worth it. They’d say, “I learned a lot from the people I helped.” “I’m proud that I reached out and tried something new.” “It proved I had the skills I needed to move ahead with a real job.” “It felt good to see the results.” Indeed, their sense of accomplishment was in sync with data that showed how volunteerism had a greater impact on well-being than other factors, such as education, marriage, or income (Corporation for National and Community Service).
Yet, after volunteering for three decades in many roles and counseling clients serving as volunteers, I'm certain we've hardly tapped the potential of volunteerism to combat loneliness, isolation, and a sense of not belonging in our communities. I’ve realized we could be far more proactive about creating our own fulfilling and meaningful volunteer opportunities.
What if we were as thoughtful and deliberate about finding volunteer positions as we were our paid positions? What if we could find or even create a volunteer experience with a group that warmly embraced us and fostered a sense of genuine belonging? What if we looked at volunteering through this vantage point: If friends can be the family we choose, our volunteer job can be the community we choose.
Following Our Calling Leads to a More Meaningful Volunteer Experience
Volunteering can be an ideal opportunity for us to break out of isolation and restore meaning in our lives. Yet, this is more likely to happen if we take the time to honestly and patiently reflect on what is meaningful for us before we sign up for a volunteer position. We might say this means listening to our inner voice or our soul’s calling, not just taking a volunteer opportunity because we are needed.
Often our calling leads us to join others through our values, passions, and missions. We can identify a calling inside of us by asking ourselves: What gets us off our screens, off our sofas, and out the door? What makes us brave enough to reach out to others? In my professional and personal life, I’ve observed five common callings that can motivate and guide us to rewarding volunteer opportunities:
1. Following our caring: Helping and serving others (such as volunteering at a homeless shelter)
2. Following our curiosity: Learning and teaching with others (such as teaching classes at a community center, mentoring teens, or leading tours)
3. Following our bliss (passion): Sharing our joy with others (joining in a choir or arranging flowers at the hospital)
4. Following our healing: Helping to facilitate or organize a support group with others who face the same difficult situation as you (a group for a chronic illness or a recovery 12-step program)
5. Following our sense of purpose: Sharing a cause or mission with others (advocacy for wildlife protection or joining a political campaign)
Of course, we can be called by all or any one of these, but it all comes down to doing what is truly meaningful for us. Even offering to launch a trivia night at our local pub can help us engage in a meaningful way with others.
A few suggestions for making your volunteer experience more meaningful:
- If you want your volunteer job to help you build your social life, talk to your volunteer manager about how your role can enable you to meet and interact with people. In other words, you might benefit more from meeting and greeting folks at events instead of working alone in the backroom filing or stuffing envelopes. It’s good to share with your manager what you hope socially to get out of the experience. And the manager would appreciate being able to retain you longer as well.
- Do a volunteering job where you can meet regularly enough with the same people, so you can develop relationships over time. It takes many months, if not years, to build solid relationships, and a volunteer job can provide this if we meet at least a couple of times a month.
- You might create your own volunteer job, internship, or meetup that puts you at ease with others. Be proactive and advocate for a role you would like to offer to your community, particularly if you have the needed skills. (I know retired teachers who are thriving as instructors at lifelong learning centers, teaching everything from sailing classes to yoga to needlepoint—so many ways we can create our own volunteer jobs. Or you can start peer support groups or meetups.
- Make sure your volunteer schedule fits your energy level and optimal times for engagement with others. When is the time of day (or evening) that we feel more social? Timing means a lot when meeting new people (especially for introverts), and hopefully, we feel ready to welcome others into our lives.
As long as we care about others in the communities we live in, we can free ourselves from the grip of isolation and loneliness. Volunteering helps us grow a sense of community, a sense of place—of belonging. It gives us the opportunity to create little sanctuaries of belonging with each other. Let’s not shy away.