Why Do People Volunteer?

During the holiday season, many people feel the need to volunteer their time to charity organizations.† Feeding the homeless is especially popular at this time of the year, and then often forgotten – duty done.† Such volunteering is often met with eye-rolling by the staff of organizations, who wish that such earnest desire to help would continue at other times of the year as well.

Itís easy to be cynical about holiday volunteering.† But for an increasing number of men and women, young and old, volunteering their time, service, and expertise has become an integral part of their lives; an expression of their core values.† And that raises the question: Why do people volunteer?

Moreover, how does it impact your own life, as well as those whom you help? Over the years Iíve explored these questions with men and women, and tried to help them discover the meaning and impact of their volunteer work upon their own lives, both personally and professionally.†Iíve found that volunteer work can impact peoplesí values, perspectives, and even their life goals.† For many, it spurs new growth, spiritually and emotionally.

This makes sense.† Over the years, as Iíve investigated the link between career success and emotional conflict, Iíve found that many highly successful, career-oriented men and women acknowledge feelings of inner emptiness, and absence of meaning in their lives. At the same time, many say that their volunteer work is the only arena that provides a sense of meaning and human connection.† Far greater than their career, and – sadly – often greater than their intimate relationships.

This resonates with similar comments Iíve heard from my psychotherapy patients, as well. †It underscores, I think, that the core challenge of adulthood is creating meaning, purpose, and human connection.† That is, a sense of integration and balance between yourself and the larger human community.† Thatís no surprise:† The current thinking and research about human development, as well as the increasingly holistic perspectives in medicine, join with current viewpoints of modern physics in agreement that all life is interconnected. Beneath surface differences, we are all one.

Spiritual traditions of both East and West have been ahead of the thinking of psychologists and physicists, in this regard, as well as describing action that follows from it.† For example, in the Buddhist tradition, acting with compassion in daily life is viewed as a natural expression of this awareness. Itís like when you cut your finger, you don’t deliberate about whether to bandage it; or dither over the cost-benefit equation.† You know itís part of you, and you just do it.

I think psychological health includes acting on this kind of awareness though positive engagement and connection with the diverse human community. Volunteerism is a direct conduit for this because service to others demonstrates your fundamental connection with all living things.

A study of survivors of the death camps during the Holocaust found that most of those who survived had engaged in active attempts to help others in the camps survive, not just themselves. You can argue that volunteerism helps the other as well as yourself because it affirms the reality of interconnection. In fact, volunteerism is really just a more organized form of something all of us do all the time, every day. Weíre always giving of ourselves in some way, in some relationship, all the time — as parent, partner, or citizen of the planet. In that sense we are always “volunteering,” though we may not call it that.

Whatever you “practice” in daily life always becomes stronger Ė for better or for worse. When you volunteer, you help redress the damaging affects of the disconnection and self-interest that pervades our culture, and which fuels much of the violence, intolerance and fear that we see today, especially since the financial meltdown that began in September 2008. †In that particular way youíre defining the impact you want to have on your own future and that of others, because who you want to be in each life situation, in every moment, is the one choice you always have in life.