The Relationship Between Well-Being and Volunteer Experience

Reflections from Middlebury College students and CCE AmeriCorps VISTA member. Written for Middlebury College Campus Well blog.

How does building meaningful relationships with others, especially through service, support our well-being? Many people have had some volunteer experience at some point in their lives and the common consensus is that it feels good–to do something worthwhile, to focus on others’ needs rather than our own for a change. It seems that we are all, on some level, aware of the psychological benefits that come from volunteering. 

Based on a study cited in the Corporation for National and Community Service, “[t]hose who give support through volunteering experience greater health benefits than those who receive support” (pg. 3). Indeed, the strong “connection between volunteering, social psychological factors, and social networks” has been captured in what is known as the “social integration theory” or “role theory,” (4). A person’s numerous social roles naturally bring about different social connections. To know our role–and to know that we have a role–within a community gives us a sense of purpose and belonging. 

Our first taste at volunteer work almost always includes these feelings of significance and satisfaction. Nathaniel, a Middlebury student, remembers his earliest experience with volunteering as a Scout Troop. The younger boys were called upon to help the older boys complete their service projects, with the promise of cookies and other treats in return. “As I grew older,” Nathaniel reflects, “ I didn’t need the food as a reward but sought the satisfaction of completion and significance… We did not directly interact with community members while working on the trails, but returning to the land to see people using our trails left me satisfied. I looked at a job well done, and saw how our project improved the land and people’s well-being.” Knowing that our work has a positive impact on the larger community no doubt makes us feel that we are doing something right and something very significant. 

Moreover, volunteering helps us create meaningful relationships with people we usually don’t interact with. In turn, we may find ourselves experiencing personal growth. Lauren, a Middlebury student coordinator of the student service organizations, found that she was saying yes to more opportunities because of her experiences with volunteering: “I’m always prepared and ready to take on a new challenge, and I like doing so. I think that quality stems from my time volunteering when I was younger.” 

 Besides being open to trying new, different things we may also experience a change in perspectives due to the people we meet. Lauren works with a number of student-led service organizations. To her, it has been inspiring to see how they work with the community at large and she feels grateful for being a part of a wonderful group of people. After all, the people we get to meet often makes the work we do even more worthwhile. 

Nathaniel, in working with the Charter House Coalition at Middlebury, reflects that guests he’s met there have changed his views and reconsidered his opinions on numerous topics. “I love meeting people,” Nathaniel continues, “and the townsfolk of Middlebury are different from Middlebury College students. I feel thankful, and a more complete person for having volunteered there.” 

Jilly, a recent Middlebury graduate and a current AmeriCorps VISTA Member, echoes Lauren and Nathaniel’s experiences of personal growth from volunteering: “Service helps me to look outside myself and my problems, while also growing who I am as a person,” she starts, “When done well, there is a reciprocal relationship, where I’m learning more about the systems in which I operate, the needs that exist, and where my place is to make a positive impact or even take a step back and allow others to chart their own course.” Service makes us realize that problems exist “outside [of ourselves” and this realization helps us become more in tune with the rest of our community and, at most, the world. This connection helps us grow as individuals, because it allows us to see our own place within a bigger system and realize where our help is needed and where they aren’t.  

With her experiences volunteering in her own community, within Middlebury, and abroad Jilly found “the importance of taking one’s time to listen to the would-be recipients of service, to see where [her] ideas match reality, and how to respond productively where they don’t.” Not only does this apply to service work that she does, it also can apply to how she thinks about her relationship with others. Jilly adds, humorously, “Does my sister REALLY want more of my hand-me-down stuff when she never asks for it? Or am I just too lazy to go to Goodwill or properly recycle it?” 

While volunteering creates a lot of room for personal growth, it is important to remember that volunteering is ultimately about other people. The common conception that volunteering is the “right thing to do” is not wrong, but service work involves more than that. The lessons we learn sometimes vary depending on the type of volunteer work we do. Jilly’s most impactful experience with volunteer work was with MAlt (Middlebury Alternative Break Trips), She went to San Antonio Texas to provide Spanish-language legal advocacy to asylum-seeking families being detained in private prisons by ICE. “The work was hard, rewarding and often heartbreaking,” Jilly reflects, “we were able to not only do our part effectively, but to process the difficult feelings that come with serving a serious need, while knowing that out role is one tiny part of a complex system that won’t change because of our service.” Jilly highlights a very important aspect of volunteering. 

While giving back to others certainly feels good, it is also very important to be aware of how much our work is helping others, if they are at all. We volunteer not because we want to feed our own feelings of self-importance. Rather, we volunteer to try to genuinely help others however we can–even if our impact is small. And being aware of our impact certainly helps us keep our intentions genuine and helps us practice some humility.

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