Volunteer. Give Pro Bono. Help Others. It’s the Right Thing to Do, and It Will Boost Your Happiness.

Volunteering is the right thing to do — we all know that. And studies show that it boosts happiness; those who work to further causes they value tend to be happier and healthier, experience fewer aches and pains, and even live longer. And it’s not just that helpful people also tend to be healthier and happier; studies show that helping others itself causes happiness. “Be selfless, if only for selfish reasons,” as one of my happiness paradoxes holds. About a quarter of Americans volunteer, and of those, a third volunteers for more than a hundred hours each year (which requires just two hours each week).

One cause for which I volunteer my time, energy, and money is the New York Public Library. I love the NYPL! Whether you want an excellent book to read, help updating your resume, a great place for your teen to go after school, or research materials for the Ph.D. you’re writing about the history of the French Revolution, you find people and resources to help you — and all for free.

And just as the research predicts, my bit of work for the Library has made me so happy. I’ve met so many terrific people who share my love of reading and research. I’ve learned about treasure troves of books and materials that I never knew existed. I’ve drawn closer to New York City.

Do you need some help figuring out how to volunteer? Many great organizations match volunteers with opportunity. For example, Catchafire — “give what you’re good at” — is a site that, in just a year, has become the largest pro bono (“for the public good”) service provider in New York City, with more than 5,000 professionals giving pro bono.

One of the most pernicious myths about happiness is that it’s selfish to try to be happier. In fact, research — and experience — prove just the opposite. Happy people take greater interest in the problems of the people around them, and in social problems. They spend more time helping others, and are more likely to volunteer and to give away money. Happiness gives people the emotional wherewithal to turn outward, while the less happy are more likely to feel distrustful, isolated, and preoccupied with their own needs. So if it’s selfish to be happy, we should aim to be happy, if only for selfless reason.

To put this argument more succinctly, the Second Splendid Truth holds:
One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make someone else happy;
One of the best ways to make someone else happy is to be happy yourself.

Do you volunteer your time and skills? To what? Does it make you happier?

I’m part of Catchafire’s Powerful Woman campaign in support of National Volunteer Week. To give your times and skills to a cause you love, go to Catchafire.

* April is National Volunteer Month, and it’s also Donate Life Month. Kill two birds with one stone by volunteering to donate life! Volunteer as an organ donor by signing the online donor registry. Live your values. Do good, feel good.

* Sign up for the Moment of Happiness, and every weekday morning, you’ll get a happiness quotation in your email inbox. Sign up here, or email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com.

  • I volunteer by co-chairing various fundraisers to help local non-profits. I love doing it because I love event planning, but find the schedule of an event planner isn’t very conducive to my life. So volunteering is a win-win!

  • I must add an enthusiastic recommendation for New York Cares – newyorkcares.org. They coordinate volunteers for hundreds of needy agencies across the Greater NYC area, and they make it REALLY easy to volunteer – even if you only have an hour here and there. Most projects do not require a multi-week commitment, and you can search by the sort of help you most want to give (e.g. homeless, children, elderly, HIV/AIDS, etc). I love New York Cares!

  • Mel

    Let’s not kill any birds! Volunteer at your local animal shelter instead.

    • APO

      A friend of mine taught me, “Feed two birds with one seed.”

      • so great to hear that alternative. i’ve been trying to find a less brutal version of the old expression. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Penny Schmitt

    Cleaning out your closets can lead to great donations . . . two happiness activities! I just did that and feel 4 garbage bags lighter! And I happily volunteer at least one quilt a year, and now that I plan to retire soon, that number will grow. Quilting always makes me happy, quilting for a soldier, a disaster victim, a child in foster care or for some other need is double happiness. Also it takes about 30 minutes to contribute to saving three lives–give the gift of life! GIVE BLOOD! if you’re healthy and able to donate, this is a powerful way to volunteer.

  • I recently started volunteering for an animal shelter. Both walking dogs, and photographing the animals for their online profiles. Part of me was doing it so that I can grow my portfolio of pet photography, but also because I wanted to do something good. Even though I’ve only done it for 3 weeks I can already notice the positive boost to my mood. I’m happy because I know that the dogs get exercise. I’m happy because the dogs have improved photos on their profiles which increases their marketability. I’m also happy because the dogs that I’ve helped gets adopted. Volunteering is a great thing. When you give your time, you never know what’s going to come out of it.

  • ks

    I completely agree, but I’d add one caveat–sometimes, you can increase your happiness by admitting that right now (for whatever reason) isn’t the right time to volunteer. I was making myself miserable because a change in our family situation made volunteering very very difficult, and being a volunteer is an important part of my self-identity. But that change isn’t permanent, and I felt much better when I acknowledged that and gave myself permission to take a volunteering hiatus.

  • I founded and volunteer with my local chapter of USA Dance, Inc. (governing body of amateur DanceSport, member of the U.S. Olympic Committee) to bring more and better ballroom dancing activities to Los Angeles, and promote the National agenda of getting DanceSport into the Olympic Games. It’s often frustrating but very satisfying.

  • Val

    My husband is a plumber and questions are always answered for free.

    Sometimes people are apologetic about bothering him, but if he can help troubleshoot, happy to do it.

    People tend to be intimidated by their plumbing, and grateful for his input over the phone.

    We get calls back, “I did what you said and it WORKED!” or it didn’t work and they want him to come out and deal with it in the end.

    Either way, do NOT be cheap about sharing your expertise. You get what you give, so it seems. –Val

  • Churches are a great place to volunteer, and they always need the help.

  • adora

    I’m not sure about this. In many cases, volunteering is about productive individuals taking away jobs from unskilled workers. (e.g. cleaning up the beach vs. hiring cleaners) With high unemployment rate, I can’t feel good about volunteering. I’m only donating blood right now.
    Of course, there are jobs out there that wouldn’t get done without unpaid workers. I’m torn on this subject…

  • Nashvilleteacher

    I have been an American Red Cross blood donor for over 30 years (some years more than others!). I am now in the process of completing the training to be a “Rocker” in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at a hospital in my city.

  • Hi “those who work to further causes they value tend to be happier and healthier” This is so true. I have volunteered to clean a old age home along with some of my friends and it felt very good and happy to do the work.