October 16, 2012  |  Yasmeen Aleem

Volunteering involves a commitment of one’s time, energy, and/or resources to benefit others, with no expectation of reward or compensation. Millions of Americans volunteer in many different ways, dedicating anywhere from a few hours per month to several hours per week to assisting others. There are a variety of motives for volunteering, and plenty of rewards to be gained when helping others.

Personal Characteristics of Volunteers

In the United States, approximately 26 percent of adults volunteer; most are between the ages of 35 and 54. Women volunteer more frequently than men, and those with higher educational attainment tend to be more likely to volunteer. Specifically, a greater proportion of college graduates volunteer, as opposed to those who have no or little college education.1

Studies of personality have revealed that those who volunteer tend to share certain personality traits. Specifically, volunteers tend to have an internal locus of control—in other words, they believe that change happens as a result of their efforts—and have a high achievement motivation.2160;Also, volunteers tend to be friendly, enjoy interpersonal relationships, and have higher levels of empathy and concern for the welfare of others.3

Motivations for Volunteering

There are a number of factors, both altruistic and egoistic, that motivate individuals to volunteer. Often people become familiar with an organization for personal or professional reasons, and then become inspired to donate their time and effort to that institution.4 Others choose to volunteer because it is a way to express their ethical or moral values regarding helping others or humanitarianism, or because they want to learn more about the world or a specific population.5

Many people volunteer for non-altruistic reasons as well, such as career exploration, enhancing one’s resume, or gaining transferable skills to use in the future.6 Some research indicates that individuals who volunteer for non-altruistic reasons report higher levels of satisfaction with their volunteer work and a greater likelihood that they will continue to volunteer, perhaps because the benefits of volunteering are easily recognized and tangible.7

Benefits of Volunteering

It is well documented that there are numerous emotional, physical, and social benefits associated with volunteering. Studies have demonstrated that volunteers experience a “helper’s high”—a prolonged feeling of calm, reduced stress, and greater self-worth after helping others8 —and overall life satisfaction is higher among those who volunteer.9 Studies of senior citizens have found that volunteering “reduces the pace of functional decline” and is related to lower rates of depression.10 In addition, volunteering has been shown to enhance self-esteem and self-confidence, perhaps because of the increased sense of purpose and identity that results from serving others.11

Physical health is also enhanced among volunteers, particularly among older individuals. Older volunteers tend to report better health and a lesser decline in health than non-volunteers. While one might assume that better health is a prerequisite for volunteering, there are studies that suggest that volunteering itself has a positive impact on health. For example, individuals who suffer from chronic pain tend to report lower levels of pain after beginning to volunteer with other pain patients.12  Research also indicates that giving social support to others is directly correlated with longevity.13The effects of the “helper’s high” and increased sense of well-being that result from volunteering may be factors that contribute to enhanced physical health and longevity. Also, volunteering allows individuals to engage in social interactions and thereby receive social support—a factor known to promote health.14

In addition to the emotional and physical benefits, there are many social benefits enjoyed by volunteers. By becoming a contributing member of an organization, volunteers have the opportunity to hone their social and interpersonal skills and develop valuable friendships with others who share their values and interests.15   Also, many organizations provide extensive and thorough training for volunteers, offering individuals an opportunity to acquire transferable skills that will be useful in other personal and professional situations. Among youth, volunteerism has been correlated with enhanced decision-making skills, social responsibility,16 and better social outcomes, particularly for those who are at risk. For example, several studies suggest that serving others reduces antisocial behavior and school dropout rates, while increasing prosocial values among at-risk youth.17

Volunteer Opportunities for Psychology Majors

Individuals who study or have studied psychology can find numerous opportunities to use their knowledge and skills in a volunteer capacity. Volunteers can work with individuals of all ages, and in a variety of life situations. For example, those who are interested in children might choose to work with impoverished youth in foster care or group homes, or with children who have developmental disabilities or chronic physical ailments. Individuals who are concerned with women’s issues might choose to volunteer at a rape crisis hotline, women’s shelter, or breast cancer awareness organization. Other settings for volunteer work include hospitals, religious institutions, nonprofit organizations, community agencies, fire stations, schools, youth programs, and mentoring programs, among others. For those who prefer limited client contact, there are many behind-the-scenes volunteer opportunities, as well; creating marketing materials, fundraising, or maintaining an organization’s website are just a few ways that individuals can give back to their communities, while reaping the many emotional, physical, and social rewards of volunteering.

About the Author

Yasmeen Aleem

Yasmeen Aleem is a full-time instructor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Purdue Global. She holds a master's degree in clinical psychology, and is a licensed professional counselor in the state of Illinois. She has practiced counseling in university counseling centers, residential and outpatient addictions treatment agencies, and has long-term experience as a volunteer at a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

Currently, Ms. Aleem teaches psychology courses at Purdue Global, and has previously taught sociology and first-term courses. She has also mentored new faculty, and facilitated orientations for new students. Ms. Aleem has a special interest and specific experience in working with first-generation college students (students whose parents do not have bachelor's degrees) and students with disabilities.

Ms. Aleem lives outside of Chicago, Illinois with her husband and three children. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, traveling, and volunteering at her children's school.

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