People who volunteer regularly are in better shape when they get older than people who don’t volunteer. Numerous studies say so. Last week, when I served a session in the Snack Shack for a high school track meet, I figured out why. I was in a small room with five other adults and one eleven-year-old girl. We skirted around each other as we tried not to bump into the person carrying hot nachos, the girl with the Cup of Noodles, or the nice man doling out pizza slices. Everyone was ridiculously considerate, cheerful, and apologetic. It occurred to me that the reported health benefits of volunteering must be related to this vibe.
When people show up to volunteer, they are generally in a good mood. If not, they pretend to be, or put on a good mood for the sake of the impending project. We show up for the purpose of giving, right? And giving just doesn’t go along with grumpiness. Often, we are volunteering with people we haven’t met before, which contributes to the desire to wear a happy face and make a fine first impression. Even if our cheeriness isn’t sincere down to the bone, it still works its wonders. The positive energy bounces around, building strength, and becoming more real as we work together.
That day of volunteering in the Snack Shack, when our four-hour shift was over, we stood around and smiled at each other before leaving. We had become genuinely happy to be in each other’s company, having accomplished something worthwhile together. Granted, we didn’t solve a global issue, but we did feed hungry teen athletes, and they can be pretty desperate. To top it off, one of the volunteers said that he would take the leftover food to People’s Park in Berkeley where the homeless would make short order of it. We all smiled some more.
The volunteer vibe also has to do with vulnerability. When we introduce ourselves to the person in charge and ask what our assignment is, we may be stepping outside our comfort zone. When I arrived to help at the track meet, for example, I overheard a lady asking, “I’m here to help with the Triple Jump … but, well … can you tell me what the Triple Jump is?” Those of us in ear shot chuckled, but good for her for taking on the unknown! Being vulnerable is not comfortable, but it is conducive to personal growth: we are open, aware, and ready to learn from the experience at hand and from one another. Bonds are formed in record time. People we wouldn’t normally hang out with are working alongside us, and no doubt laughing with us over a blunder or mishap.
Once, I was a parent-driver for a third-grade field trip to the top of Mt. Diablo—an easy enough job, but I knew enough to realize it would not be without a challenge. On the return trip, the curvy road down was too much for one of the little girls in my car, and she threw up all over herself. My car was spared, but the girl was a mess, from long hair down to Converse sneakers. She asked if I could stop by her house so she could get a change of clothes and clean up. What parent wouldn’t agree to that? But, when the teachers found out that I had made the stop, I heard a lot of murmuring. What I did was against all kinds of school rules, especially since the girl’s parents weren’t home and she had to use a hidden key. I was feeling rather small, but then realized that no one had actually reprimanded me; I had just overheard their discussion. It was pretty clear that I did the right thing—even if it was the wrong thing—and mutual respect and appreciation followed.
If this talk of vulnerability and unforeseen challenge doesn’t appeal to you, don’t worry. There are plenty of ways to enjoy volunteering while doing something you are used to doing. “Skill-based volunteering” is one way to go. However, if you do choose to embark on a project in unfamiliar territory, remember that people tend to be especially gracious in service situations, and, what’s more, you can usually become an expert before you know it. Back at the Snack Shack for a second shift, I discovered that my fellow workers were all first-timers. All of a sudden, I was the experienced one, answering questions and acting like a big shot. Maybe this is another contributing factor to the health benefits of volunteering: becoming competent in a new arena, however small it may be.
Positive energy, vulnerability, and becoming accomplished at something new—not to mention accomplishing something for the greater good—all makes for the giving spirit … or as I call it, the Volunteer Vibe.
Originally published on GailPerryJohnston.com