Last Updated on October 24, 2023
Picture this: I’m standing in a remote village in Oaxaca, Mexico, camera in hand. As I snap a photograph of a woman standing proudly next to her newly purchased sewing machine, a wave of fulfillment washes over me, as if the pieces of a complicated puzzle have suddenly snapped into place.
I wasn’t in that rural village in the Oaxaca Valley as a tourist snapping photos; I was instead capturing stories and preserving moments of triumph for a microfinance organization. I volunteered in Mexico with En Via for six months, photographing their microloan recipients, documenting their journey, and providing marketing capital for the small social enterprise.
From those six months, I gained a nuanced sense of connection to the people and the place—one that takes time to cultivate. If I had stayed for a week, I would have done more than glimpse the lives of these indigenous women. But instead I left Oaxaca with one of the most profound volunteering experiences in my years of world travel.
I’ve already covered how long you should volunteer abroad so the communities see the most benefit from your service. And research backs up my personal experience on how to reap personal benefits—how many hours you volunteer strongly impacts how meaningfully your volunteering impacts you.
A Common Misconception: Instant Gratification
In a world driven by immediacy, it’s natural to ask, “When will I start benefiting from volunteering?” Society often implies that good deeds should bring instant karma, but the beauty of volunteering isn’t in instantaneous rewards.
The benefits unfurl slowly, like petals reaching for sunlight, unveiling themselves in the process.
Sure, you’re going to feel good about yourself even volunteering for a day on a Habitat for Humanity build, but to actually tap into the deep personal, social, and mental health benefits of volunteering, you’re going to need to integrate it into your life.
The Research: What Do the Numbers Say?
Researchers have delved into this very topic, shedding light on how the time you invest in volunteering correlates with the rewards you reap.
According to a study published in the Journal of Social Science Research, volunteers begin to notice emotional and social benefits after about 50-100 hours of service within a one-year time period.
That’s one of the core reasons Grassroots Volunteering advocates for long-term stints when volunteering abroad. Anything under a month is unlikely to have a strong benefit for the community you’re visiting, and the benefits of your time volunteering won’t stick with you.
With volunteering close to home or overseas, it’s not about clock-watching but about sustained, meaningful involvement.
The Emotional Benefits: Feeling Connected and Fulfilled
Volunteering does more than just make you feel good; it offers a profound sense of connection. It’s a transformative emotional journey that often begins to deepen after a consistent commitment.
As I traveled through rural Oaxaca, capturing the lives of women benefiting from microfinance, I found that the emotional payoff amplified over time.
After a couple of months, spending two days a week with these incredible women, the joy became more nuanced, less about the act of giving and more about mutual respect and understanding.
The Cognitive Benefits: Skill Building and Problem-Solving
Volunteering also sharpens your skills. It could be as straightforward as honing your photography skills or as intricate as mastering the nuances of community building.
A report by the Corporation for National and Community Service indicates that volunteers have a 27% higher likelihood of finding a job after being out of work than non-volunteers, underscoring the skill-building aspect of volunteering.
I found that my role as a photographer in for that microfinance organization also made me a better storyteller, a listener, and a cultural ambassador of sorts. This did not happen overnight; it was the fruit of consistent engagement.
The Social Benefits: Networking and Community Building
There’s also the undeniable social component. Volunteering often opens up avenues for networking and forming lasting relationships. When I was in Nepal and Cambodia, the friendships I formed didn’t solidify during the first few volunteer sessions. It took time.
And research from AmeriCorps enormously backs up the social benefits of regular volunteering for seniors—it lessens loneliness, provides a sense of purpose, and confers a host of other positive impacts in just two hours a week (100 hours a year).
The Time and Benefits for Older Volunteers: A Golden Opportunity
There’s something to be said about the ripening of time and the wisdom that accompanies years. And guess what? The golden years can be made even more enriching through volunteering, especially when it comes to your mental and physical well-being.
The science backs it up too. One study specifically focusing on folks aged 65 and older found that volunteering isn’t just a noble act; it’s a booster for both your physical and mental health. What’s the secret sauce? It’s the personal sense of accomplishment that you get from helping others. You’re not just giving; you’re also gaining a whole lot of emotional richness in the process.
Depression is another area where volunteering has proven to be incredibly beneficial for seniors. Another study has shown that those 65 and up who volunteered had noticeably lower rates of depression. Now, that’s a mental health benefit we can all get behind.
And if you’ve experienced health setbacks like a heart attack, volunteering might be an unlikely but potent prescription. A study from Duke University showed that people who engaged in volunteer work after suffering heart attacks had less depression and despair—two factors that can directly impact your life expectancy.
But what about the time commitment? Well, age has its privileges. An intriguing analysis of data on individuals over 70 found that volunteering around 100 hours annually correlated with a host of benefits: better self-reported health, less depression, and even increased longevity.
Here’s the kicker: the more you volunteer (up to 100 hours a year, then the benefits plateau), the better your overall well-being tends to be. For depression, the benefits scale up with the time you put in, and when it comes to feeling socially connected and content with life, those who volunteer most frequently reap the most rewards.
In simple terms, the older you are, the more you stand to gain from volunteering—not just in fuzzy feelings, but in hard, scientifically-proven metrics of well-being and health. So if you’re contemplating how to make the most of your golden years, remember that the more you give, the more you get. And the best part? This win-win situation only ripens with age.
When I Noticed a Difference
If I were to pinpoint when the benefits of volunteering truly became evident, it was during my time in Oaxaca. Not in the first week, or even the second, but gradually, as the days turned into weeks, and weeks into months.
Volunteering two days a week, the insights and benefits began to layer, like paint on a canvas, each stroke adding depth to the picture.
Sustainable Volunteering: How to Keep the Passion Alive
As seasoned volunteers, it’s our responsibility to ensure our efforts are sustainable and ethical, contributing long-term value to the communities we engage with.
Opt for local organizations, limit your environmental footprint, and focus on projects that empower the community.
In this way, your commitment becomes a continuum, one that enriches not only your life but also the world around you.
Volunteering is not a sprint; it’s a marathon, a long-term commitment that only gets richer with time. The benefits will come, both to you and the communities you serve, but it’s crucial to give it the time it deserves. Engage deeply, patiently, and you will not only find that you’ve changed lives—but that your own life has been immeasurably enriched.
Shannon O’Donnell is an award-winning travel writer, speaker, and author of the acclaimed “Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.” She’s been traveling the world for over 20 years, and is passionate about helping others use travel as a force for good.
She was the 2013 National Geographic Traveler of the Year for her work in responsible travel and tourism, and has appeared everywhere from NPR to the BBC to CNN as an expert in travel and international volunteering.