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Three Major Benefits of Volunteering

With MLK Day just around the corner, most Americans are looking forward to a relaxing three-day weekend. But plenty of organizations around the country are offering opportunities to commemorate the true spirit of the holiday—giving back to the community through service.

If you’re hesitant to join them, just consider some of the interesting and surprising research out there on the merits of service.

First, there are the societal and psychological benefits. A recent book by journalist and author Sebastian Junger includes an unexpected discovery: instead of violent crimes going up after a national disaster (like 9/11 or the Great Depression), they actually go down.

Junger posits that tough times bring people together, force them to rely on one another, and create a sense of shared responsibility. Luckily, the same thing happens when people volunteer or sign up for a service program like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps—which is exactly what Junger suggests more Americans do to create more well-being and meaning in a hyper-individualized society.

Second, volunteers experience plenty of individual health benefits. The Corporation for National Community Service found that people who volunteer have lower mortality rates and lower rates of depression than those who don’t.

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Volunteering can also improve elasticity in the brains of people at risk of developing Alzheimer’s. In one study on Experience Corps volunteers, groups of older Americans showed “substantial and clinically meaningful” improvement in executive functions after volunteering in an elementary school for an academic year.

And finally, volunteering helps young people by empowering them to help others.

While volunteering can help young people with a job search—Habitat for Humanity found that volunteers are 27 percent more likely to find a job after being out of work than people who don’t volunteer—it also taps into a deeper drive: the desire to give back.

A few years ago, America’s Promise visited about two dozen workforce development programs all across the country, and we found that some of the most effective organizations didn’t just consider the problems facing young people—they considered how to help young people be problem solvers. Several of the young people interviewed expressed a desire to go out and give back to their own communities, creating a ripple effect of service.

Despite all of these individual and societal benefits of service, the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that volunteering in the U.S. has been on a steady decline for years.

In light of these findings, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous quote on service takes on new meaning. “Life’s most persistent and urgent question,” he said, is this: “What are you doing for others?”

Ironically, it is in asking that question this we indirectly consider what it is we are doing for ourselves.

Ready to get involved? Check out our volunteer page fueled by Points of Light Foundation to find service activities near you.  You can also look for opportunities to volunteer through the  Corporation for National and Community Service. Share your stories of service on Twitter using #MLKDay and #opps2serve.