You won’t find too many people who argue that volunteering is not a positive activity. Perhaps it’s no surprise that something that feels so good can actually be good for you, and volunteering has proven benefits for brain health. There are thousands of ways to contribute to society, whether by making small changes in your neighborhood or launching a campaign to change the world. Either way you’re bound to change your cognitive health for the better.
Volunteering gives you purpose. We all need something to drive us, and studies have shown that having a purpose — a cause, a hobby, a passion — can lessen the effects of brain aging. When people retire from the workforce, or watch their kids leave the house for lives of their own, that purpose may disappear. Volunteering keeps us working for a greater cause, and that helps keep us sharp.
Volunteering keeps you active. Sure, you may not be volunteering as a personal trainer for the underprivileged, but most volunteering involves some sort of physical activity, even if it only serves to get you out of the house more often. But it’s also easy to work some aerobic activity into your public service as you walk door-to-door to canvass, or deliver meals to the homebound, or serve as a mentor at a local school.
Volunteering challenges you mentally. With any volunteer opportunity, you’re learning new things. Maybe it’s studying the cause you’re advocating, or learning a new neighborhood, or developing a new physical skill. And mentoring or teaching keep you exercising the skills and knowledge you’ve acquired throughout your life. All of those things help you develop new neural pathways, and keep your brain growing.
Volunteering enlarges your social network. Sure, you can do good from your desk chair and telephone, but the real work of volunteering is done in groups. In the course of making a difference in the world, you’ll meet and form relationships with your fellow volunteers and the people that you serve — and studies have shown that people with large social networks have healthier brains.
Volunteering lowers your stress level. The simple act of helping others makes us feel better about ourselves, and lets us forget about our own problems for a while. Lower levels of stress encourage brain health, and improve cognition.
So as you can see, the simple act of volunteering can have a very complex impact on our cognitive health. It satisfies all of our Brain Commandments except one, “Eat Smart.” Unfortunately, unless you’re volunteering at your community garden, volunteerism is largely fueled by donuts and stale coffee. We suggest packing a lunch, preferably something high in folate.