Experience the duality of volunteering

By giving back to others, individuals are simultaneously able to give back to themselves. Volunteering not only helps one’s community but also positively impacts the well-being and mental health of those doing the volunteer work. 

With increased downtime, the holiday season can be an opportunity to experience the benefits of helping others. 

Volunteering is a great social connector as well as predictor of brain health and happiness because humans are social beings, clinical psychologist Betty Burrows said in a phone interview. When humans connect with others, feelings of isolation decrease.

The positive feelings that arise after volunteering are due to feel-good hormones released by the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine. 

Mirror neurons, which are cells that fire a response in the body based on what is seen, also play a role in the effects of volunteering, Psychiatrist Dr. Eva Ritvo said in a phone interview.  

“If you’re volunteering and you’re helping somebody and that puts a smile on their face, the mirror neurons in your brain for smiling are going to get triggered, and both people are going to feel good,” Ritvo said. 

According to senior Ella Rubinstein, she feels the benefits of volunteering by working through her synagogue for Family Promise, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income families and those experiencing homelessness through services. Rubinstein helps serve dinner for families and plays with the kids. 

“I just feel like they’re really happy to play with me and my brother, [and their happiness] just makes me feel really good,” Rubinstein said. 

Aside from the psychological benefits that people experience when engaging in acts of service, volunteering also provides opportunities to escape the consumerist aspects of the holiday season.

For some, volunteering can feel like an antidote to consumerism by de-emphasizing the materialistic aspects of the season, Burrows said. Volunteering also facilitates personal connections. 

“The spiritual meaning of the holidays is about connection and reflection and bringing light to others,” Burrows said.

Volunteering can also be a way for people to see their lives in a broader context and gain an understanding about the different realities around them. 

Because of the broadened perspective Rubinstein gained through Family Promise by communicating and working with families of different backgrounds, she plans to pursue a career involving community service and social justice. 

“I definitely feel like, with these kids, I give them stuff and they give me stuff,” said Rubinstein. “I’m not just volunteering, they give me as much as I give them.”