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Not «Just an Endorphin Release»: Five Smart Rules for Volunteers

It's a scientific fact: volunteering stimulates the production of happiness hormones, prolongs life, and even helps people find their purpose. But, as always, there's a catch. Here are five life hacks to ensure you become happier while helping others.

Why do volunteers help others? Is their help truly altruistic? Any debate on this will eventually lead to the simple realization: doing good... feels damn good!

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, our brains love it when we care for others and actively produce so-called “happiness hormones”, such as endorphin and dopamine.

What's the reason behind the bright biochemical response to good deeds? To answer this, let's once again turn to the scientific community. The Harvard Medical School notes that volunteering provides a sense of purpose and improves mood. According to a large-scale study by Indian scientists, volunteer work also strengthens and expands social connections.

As a result, by helping others, we find more meaning in our existence, get along better with those around us, and become more likeable. All this gives our brain a sense of security: “Buddy, we’re not going to be left behind!” And it joyfully starts producing happiness hormones. If this explanation seems too simple to you, read this report.

Various studies also show that volunteering ultimately prolongs life, delays ageing, and generally makes people happier.

However, an article in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine titled “Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good” comes to an important conclusion: this is true as long as the person is not overloaded. The authors of the study confirm that compassionate behaviour is directly linked to well-being and longevity but warn against fully immersing oneself in others' problems.

So how can you engage in fruitful volunteering without the risk of burnout and harm? Let's figure it out together with an experienced psychotherapist to ensure you get your dose of happiness hormones.

Rule №1: Be honest with yourself

The desire to help others can have different origins, says Artem Zhilin, a practising psychologist, gestalt therapist, and trauma therapist. It's not always about genuine care. Sometimes the motivation is more mundane: to alleviate guilt, boost one's ego, or cope with neurosis. In such cases, it’s hard to talk about the positive effects of volunteering.

But why does motivation matter? What's the difference if someone does good?

Artem Zhilin compares it to firefighters or rescuers who do their job out of a calling. Such people feel confident and calm. “The soul finds peace.”

The same applies to volunteers: if they feel a genuine need to help others and see it as their calling, volunteering will have a positive, even healing effect.

However, if someone helps others because “it's the right thing to do,” they risk not only burning out but also seriously harming their mental health, Artem warns.

The solution: ask yourself why you want to volunteer. If you find it hard to answer or if there is no clear inner impulse to help, wait. Think about what exactly you are ready to do. Perhaps in your case, it will be enough to donate to a volunteer organization or charity fund.

“Always be honest with yourself. It sounds very primitive, but in fact, it’s one of the most difficult things in the world,” says Artem Zhilin.

Rule №2: Help yourself first

Sometimes people suddenly feel an urgent need to help someone but don't realize that this need is a reaction of a traumatized psyche. A striking example is the sudden desire to work in a hospice after the death of a loved one. Such volunteers are simply dangerous – both for themselves and others. They unconsciously try to heal their wounds through their wards.

If you have recently experienced serious trauma, do not rush into volunteering headfirst. Help yourself first, Artem recommends. You cannot live through grief “at someone else's expense.”

Remember: volunteer work is not a universal cure for depression, pain, or anxiety. Do not blame yourself if you currently do not have the strength to help someone. Give yourself time to accumulate internal resources.

But there are exceptions. In extreme conditions, helping others can become the main “medicine.” This happens in war, in areas of natural disasters, or in technological catastrophes. In such cases, different laws apply Artem notes.

When a traumatized person starts saving others without having lived through their trauma, it can help them through “life therapy.” However, a negative outcome is also possible. In this case, predicting anything is difficult, Zhilin emphasizes.

Organizations that gather volunteer groups to work in extreme conditions should develop a clear system of rules and actions. People are reassured by clear regulations when chaos reigns around them. Volunteers need to be given clear tasks, limited in time. It is important to ensure that all participants follow schedules and instructions. Additionally, the team should include coordinators with well-developed communication skills. It is necessary to monitor not only the actions of volunteers but also their emotional state.

Rule №3: Don’t be afraid to praise yourself

Helping others is not only a calling but also a skill that can be developed, says Artem Zhilin. People gradually learn to help others, reinforcing positive patterns. How does this work? For example, your brain says: “I am a worthy person, my self-respect is growing.” Such thoughts are a kind of reward for good deeds. Don't be shy about them!

Volunteering often provides additional internal support and a sense of control: “No one pays me for this; I choose what to do.” And this is also a reason to praise yourself.

Moreover, volunteers consciously sacrifice something for something greater than themselves. This enhances the sense of belonging, which is considered one of the basic conditions for our well-being. To not just survive, but to live and thrive, people need to belong to a group of like-minded people, to an important cause. It's a wonderful feeling when we all matter, right?

Artem Zhilin is convinced that all volunteers today – regardless of the scale of their tasks – should genuinely be proud of themselves. Now, when the world is torn by wars, when “mass psychosis” reigns around, and it becomes easier to hate each other, volunteer communities remain the gathering points for the most diverse people who, in reality, share one common goal: to make the world at least a little bit better.

Any volunteer can say to themselves: “I am doing something valuable, I am great!” And this will not be bragging. You remember rule #1, right?

Rule №4: Believe in people

Volunteers are ordinary people. They get tired, sad, and argue. And they are very different. Artem Zhilin is convinced that it is impossible to create a “psychological portrait” of an average volunteer.

Introverts, extroverts, choleric, sanguines, Scorpios, and Aquarians – insert any scientific or unscientific term defining personality type. It doesn’t matter.

It's all about individual reaction, need if you will – the impulse of the soul says Artem. Neither age, nationality, income level, nor religion matter.

What truly matters is the good that you can do together, and what you see in each other. This is how strangers unite into search teams when a child goes missing – and work extremely effectively. This is how citizens of warring countries find ways to fight for peace together. This is how volunteer organizations cover entire continents – despite cultural or language barriers.

Being part of big honest stories is itself great happiness. And in fact, there are no strict contraindications to volunteering, notes Artem Zhilin. Indeed, anyone can become a volunteer. Just remember, please, about rules #1 and #2. And believe in people.

Rule №5: Show kindness

We borrowed this rule from Tyler J. VanderWeele, director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University.

Yes, we don’t always have the resources to be volunteers. But we can sometimes make ourselves and others happy, rightfully getting a dose of dopamine.

“Show kindness. Choose a day and focus on doing good deeds for others, something you wouldn't normally do. This may require careful planning. But planning and the conscious intention to do good can also significantly impact your well-being,” advises Professor VanderWeele.

Remember: there are no small good deeds. And yes, self-care also counts! In the future, the world will need people like you: thoughtful, compassionate, and open.

Your kindness will surely change the world because we all are this world.

Reshim thanks volunteer Anna Filatova for preparing this article.