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Posted by Sarah Brown on 31 May '24

How can you do good, improve society and get fitter? Volunteer!

Mark your calendars for the upcoming week, June 3rd to June 9th, 2024. This week holds a special significance as it marks the 40th anniversary of volunteers' week.

This campaign is not just about expressing gratitude to volunteers, but also about shining a spotlight on the pivotal role they play in creating a positive change.

Recently, The Times published an intriguing article that included some compelling research. The piece explored the rising trend of societal isolation and self-absorption, shedding light on the potential consequences and possible solutions.

Lonely and self-obsessed

The article quoted Jeremy Adams, a teacher from California, who, in 2021, published a book noting that teenage depression had increased by 63 per cent between 2007 and 2017. NB long before social media was so powerful. He observed that these young people were feeling "hollowed out," living solitary lives, overly connected to technology, and disconnected from family and community. In the same year, a survey by the Onward think tank found a decline in community and a sense of belonging among young people. Millennials and Generation Z (born roughly between 2000 and 2010) were less likely to be involved in group activities than previous generations at a similar age. People under 25 were three times more likely than those over 65 to distrust their neighbours, and only around half said they trusted their family "completely." In 2019, Gillian Bridge, a behaviour expert and addiction specialist, addressed the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, attributing this mass unhappiness to a focus on 'me, myself, and I.' She said, "It's taking people who are vulnerable to begin with and asking them to focus inwards."

Outward-looking and altruistic

The antidote to loneliness and psychological problems for both young and older people is engaging in activities that shift their focus outward rather than inward. Outdoor activities and pursuits that involve interacting with others are all beneficial. However, the most useful activity is the polar opposite of self-absorption—actively and directly helping other people, and volunteering is a great way to do this. In her book "Sweet Distress," Bridge explained that altruism is good for brain health. Studies have shown that altruism offers protection from mental decline, while dementia is more likely to develop among those preoccupied with themselves. Volunteering benefits society and provides a sense of purpose and fulfilment, motivating and inspiring young people to make a difference in the world.

The key point about altruism is that it involves other people. Today's young people tend to be intensely socially conscious, believing in "social justice" and saving the planet. However, this is not the same as practising altruism. Social causes are abstract and remote, and they don't involve a personal relationship with tangible results. Altruism involves helping others by giving up something of value, such as time, effort, or rewards through volunteering or selfless acts.

Young people and others are lonely in large measure because our society has become atomised, with many narcissistic individuals. Connecting to others through personal acts of kindness not only benefits society but can also start to heal the damaging isolation of the self-absorbed. Studies show that simply giving money does not have the same impact as giving of your time. Regular volunteering is most effective, but it does not have to be a huge time commitment.


BBC Radio 4's programme "Just One Thing" by Michael Mosley this week has also explained the health benefits of volunteering. Volunteering your time, labour or spare room can really benefit your health too. Most people might think it is good for mental health reducing stress, and making someone generally happier, but it goes beyond this. A 2016 study of over 7,000 older Americans found that those who volunteered regularly spent 38% fewer nights in the hospital. A 2020 study comparing people found those that volunteered for 2 hours a week had a lower risk of an early death. However volunteering to help yourself or feel better doesn't work, you need to be doing it to help others to get the impact.

A four year study of older people with normal blood pressure, identified that those who volunteered for four hours a week were 40% less likely to have developed high blood pressure by the end of the four years.

Michael speaks with Dr Edith Chen from Northwestern University in the US, who has been investigating the power of helping others. She tells Michael about her studies with high school students where they were randomly allocated to a group that volunteered once a week working with younger children or to a control group that didn't do anything different. It showed that volunteering can lower chronic inflammation and cholesterol by boosting your mood and empathy and even help you lose weight. The inflammation studied is associated with heart disease, stroke and diabetes later in life. Those with the most increased empathy and reduced negativity saw the biggest inflammation reduction.

Listen to the episode here


Any charity or social enterprise should be encouraging volunteering but ensure it is a positive experience as Frederick Herzberg said

If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do.

Help volunteers understand the impact that they have - here are some more articles that support volunteering:

Powerful ways to help people to understand your impact

Volunteering – good for the country, good for business, good for people and good for charities

Changing the world

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Tags: volunteering social impact