How volunteering can change your life
Updated: Feb 4
Pleasure & purpose
Wellbeing expert Professor Paul Dolan states that happiness is our experiences of pleasure and purpose over time. Pleasure being those things that we enjoy in the moment, that help us experience positive emotions and that make us feel good. Purpose being those things that are important and meaningful to us and where we often feel part of something bigger than ourselves (although don’t necessarily feel good in the moment). It was a lack of purpose in my life in my late 20s that led me to volunteering and I’m not exaggerating when I say that volunteering changed my life.
Man’s search for meaning
When I was 28 years old, I worked in the music industry and the work was occasionally fun and I was well paid, but I didn’t feel like I was making a positive dent in the world. In fact, there were days when I’d go into work and what I was doing felt so meaningless that it made me feel quite unhappy. It was around this time that I considered volunteering. It was something that had been on my radar in the past after seeing adverts in magazines about various opportunities to volunteer but I’d never done anything about it. It was the sense that something was lacking in my life (a sense of purpose – although at the time, I probably wasn’t aware that this was what was missing!) that led me to a reply to an advert I saw about volunteering for a charity called Chance UK. For psychotherapist and holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, this move would seem entirely natural. In his seminal book, Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl argues that a search for life’s meaning is the central human motivational force.
My experiences of volunteering
I became a mentor with Chance UK after extensive training, and I mentored a 9-yr old boy, Wesley* who lived in Hackney. Wesley was being taught in a pupil referral unit due to his behaviour in school, his mum had mental health difficulties, his dad lived in a different country and his teenage brother was involved in local gangs. I won’t lie that at the start of my volunteering journey, I felt quite daunted. Not only was I committing to a year of mentoring but I wasn’t sure if I had what I needed to support a young boy with such a difficult home environment. But, with support from Chance UK (I had regular supervision and they were always at the end of the phone if I needed them) and following the structured mentoring programme, I began to look forward to my weekly meet-ups with Wesley. I got to know a lovely young boy and his mum, we’d play football in the park, we’d go to the local library (and got him his first library card), and we’d enjoy various trips to museums.
Volunteering gave me a sense of purpose. I genuinely felt like I was having a positive impact on Wesley’s life. And he was having a positive impact on mine too. I started to enjoy work more because I no longer needed work to give me a sense of purpose – volunteering gave my week meaning now. A few months into mentoring, a friend asked me to become a governor at her primary school which was near where I lived. I agreed to that too and enjoyed helping support the school in various ways. After several months of governing and mentoring, I wanted more of my week taken up by work and activities that I considered meaningful. I decided to change careers and retrain to become a primary school teacher and I’ve been teaching for over 12 years now. Volunteering definitely changed my life.
Volunteering and wellbeing
There is a growing body of research into the links between volunteering and wellbeing. There is still some debate as to whether volunteering makes people happier, or if it’s the case the happier people tend to volunteer more, but volunteering certainly does seem to help the people that choose to take part in it. Research shows volunteering is positively linked to:
· enhanced wellbeing
· improved life satisfaction
· increased happiness
· decreases in symptoms of depression
The What Works Centre for Wellbeing explain that volunteering helps different people in different ways. For example, it tends to benefit people more if they are older, unemployed, from lower socio-economic backgrounds, or have lower levels of wellbeing. What’s clear is that volunteering benefits communities. Either because volunteering leads to wellbeing for volunteers, or because when people feel well they are more likely to get involved. Increasing wellbeing – through volunteering or other means – is good for individuals and the communities they are part of.
Volunteering – the small things matter
This year, Teachappy have chosen Home-Start Watford and Three Rivers as our charity partner. Home-Start Watford & Three Rivers recruits and trains local volunteers and carefully matches a volunteer to visit a family in their own home for a couple of hour
s a week. All of the families they support must have at least one child under five. I had the privilege of attending one of the Home-start volunteer training sessions they run. Experienced volunteers were sharing their insights with new recruits. I got to hear how the volunteers had helped their families in small but often profound ways. From helping a mum who had no oven to bake a cake for her son’s 1st birthday party, to helping a family with their children’s bedtime routines so everyone was getting more rest and feeling more hopeful about the future.
The thing that shone through the most from the experienced volunteers was not to underestimate the small things that you can do to support families. One volunteer reassured the others that “You’re going in every week and being consistent, and that’s a lot”. Another simply explained that for many of the families which feel isolated, “Your presence is enough”.
Why not volunteer yourself?
Home-Start Watford and Three Rivers are currently recruiting for their next wave of volunteers. Home-visiting volunteers visit a family regularly for 2-3 hours once a week, supporting families in a sensitive and flexible way. The formula is a simple but effective one – a volunteer, who has parenting experience themselves, offers emotional and practical support in whatever way the parent is going to find helpful. If this interests you, then go to https://home-startwatford.org.uk/can-you-help/ to find out more.
I asked one of the Home-Start volunteers to sum up their experience of volunteering and they replied, ‘I felt I had a made a difference’. And, ultimately, that’s what all of us are searching for.
*Not his real name