Have you been helped by a volunteer recently? Did you know that volunteering is good for you?

Life in lockdown has been made more bearable for many people by the efforts of volunteers, in many forms. Whether provided by organised groups or the simple gift of caring for a neighbour, volunteers are making a difference all over the country.

Last week was National Volunteer Week. It’s a chance to recognise the efforts of the people who step up. If you volunteer in any capacity in your community, thank you for your service – it matters!

(This article was first published in the May edition of The Trentham Trumpet – a monthly community newsletter produced by volunteers.)

Volunteers are the lifeblood of community. The organisations that provide lots of activities that make living in a small town like Trentham in Victoria (my home town) such a wonderful experience rely heavily on a group of committed volunteers.

Many small towns “punch above their weight” – in Trentham, we have more great cafés and eating venues per head than most, more talented artists and more welcoming B&Bs.

One of the best ways in which we deliver at a high level is with the number and variety of community groups. Regardless of our passion or interest, it’s highly likely that we can meet up with some like-minded folk and share tips, techniques or just spend time together.

Depending on the size of the group, there will almost always be a team behind the scenes making it happen. They might only be a few, a dozen or even up to a hundred for a big event like Spudfest. That’s our annual celebration of the humble potato, which draws thousands of people to the town on the first Saturday of May each year.

While volunteers are generally very happy to contribute to their community, it turns out that giving of our time is good for us!

Numerous studies, including the OECD Better Life Index, have found that volunteers tend to be more satisfied with their lives. That’s because they’re interacting with other people, setting & achieving goals, and learning new things. Dr Tim Sharp PhD says “Satisfaction with life is at least partially dependent on living a life with purpose & meaning and volunteering provides both these things in spades.”

There are health benefits, too. Research by the University of Sydney showed that helping others triggers the reward pathway in the brain which releases “feel-good” neurotransmitters. These can give us a buzz sometimes known as the “helpers high”. Other studies have found that helping others is related to improved physical health, lower blood pressure and relief from depression & chronic pain.

But wait, there’s more! Whether we are just starting our working life, or looking for a change of direction, volunteering can help. We can gain experience in a target industry and make contacts with others in the field. At any age, it gives us a chance to learn and practice new skills, such as managing others, delegation, working in a team, project management, construction, communication and problem solving.

Children, teens and young adults can gain from volunteering themselves, or by simply watching the adults in their world. By giving back to the community, they’ll see or experience how making a difference, helping others and creating change can make them feel good, too. Everyone also gets to know the groups in the community which helps to identify resources and activities for the whole family.

From a community perspective, there are enormous benefits. The Centre for Civil Society Studies suggests that volunteering is a beneficial way to connect and build positive relationships which increases trust, cooperation and respect for diversity. If you are new in town, you can make new friends through shared activities and interests. It also broadens your support network, exposing you to neighbourhood resources, plus you get to do some fun, personally satisfying activities. Longer term residents can strengthen existing relationships by committing to a project that will make a difference to the town.

If you’re not in a position to be able to volunteer, then at the very least be grateful & appreciative of those who do, so that you can enjoy the fruits of their labours. Recruiting people to donate their time & energy is a challenge for most groups and events and it is not made any easier by critical comments from the sidelines.

So, if you want to make a start, the best way to choose something you’re passionate about. Seek out lists of groups and contact details for the organisers (try your local council or neighbourhood house), or simply ask around – there’s something for everyone!

Peter Shaw MBA, an alumni of Sydney University who participated in their research project says “There’s something about giving to others that adds enjoyment to life. Finding an organisation or cause which engages your heart & mind, and contributing to it in ways that are meaningful to you and valuable to others, is a great gift to uncover.”