Why Is It Better to Give Than to Receive?

Examining the physical and spiritual benefits of volunteering

Posted Nov 06, 2016

Research consistently shows that volunteering is good for us.  Volunteering— particularly for older adults—has been correlated with better health, longer lives, and a greater sense of purpose.

In one recent article in The Atlantic, a researcher who found significant and far reaching benefits from volunteering went so far as to call for doctors to prescribe volunteering in the same way they recommend exercise or healthy diets.  Yet there is an interesting caveat:  the benefits of volunteering only seem to accrue to those who volunteer for altruistic reasons, not those who do so for perceived benefit.

Especially when working with people suffering from depression, I find myself recommending exercise and volunteering as a way out of their black hole.  Of course the problem remains to try to get them to take the first step.  When it comes to exercise, most people agree intellectually it would be a good thing but because they’re so depressed they can’t get themselves to the gym.  But when it comes to volunteering, it seems almost counter-intuitive to suggest that someone give to others when they feel so empty inside themselves.  To which I counter:  There is no better way to be filled than to give.

I will leave it to the social scientists to uncover what it is about volunteering that leads to such good physical and emotional health improvements.  I want to focus here on the spiritual question:  what is it about giving to others that causes us to be filled?

I want to suggest that volunteering is an act which reflects fundamental and profound spiritual truths:  we are not isolated, disconnected entities and we are not the center of the universe.  We are but one part of a much larger whole.  When we choose to give of ourselves to this greater whole—whether it be feeding the homeless or volunteering in a classroom or cleaning up a public creek—we are committing an act that aligns our individual selves with a larger but invisible network and with the obvious but often over looked fact that life isn't all about us.  This alignment, this rearranging of our priorities and our energy to sync with a greater whole and a truer perspective, this is what contributes to our enhanced sense of well being and purpose.

Every Sunday morning at 9 a.m. I attend a Zumba class (I am one of a handful of men in a class of about 100 women).  When the music turns on and the instructor starts the dance, there is a magic moment that occurs.  It occurs at precisely that point where 100 individuals cease whatever it is they are doing individually and begin to move in sync with a unifying, higher order calling—in this case, the music and the instructor.  That transition from 100 individuals to one large and unified organism is thrilling.  I feel uplifted by the group energy and spurred to contribute more of my own.

I think this is analogous to what happens when volunteering.  In giving of ourselves to a larger whole, we lose our small “i” and are embraced in a larger "we," experiencing the truth of the dictum that the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts and that we are but a small part in this whole.

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