Well before a global pandemic tore us away from our loved ones, and the Omicron variant threatened to upend holiday plans, experts were warning of “an epidemic of loneliness” in the United States. Three in five Americans surveyed in 2019 reported feeling lonely, which the researchers attributed to a variety of factors, including a lack of social support, infrequent meaningful social interactions, poor physical and mental health and an imbalance in daily activities. In addition, nearly one quarter of those 65 and older are considered socially isolated, as per the National Health and Aging Trends Study. Loneliness often stems from unwanted solitude. But it is also driven by a discrepancy between how you perceive your relationships versus what you want (or expect) from them. That disconnect is why you can be surrounded by family at Christmas and still feel like an outsider.
A potential cure? Kindness toward others. Something as simple as volunteering can improve our health, ease feelings of loneliness and broaden our social networks, studies suggest. Opportunities to give back — both in person and virtually — are more commonplace than they were last year, and the need for volunteers hasn’t let up, especially at food pantries. “Volunteering is one of the best, most certain ways we can find a purpose and meaning in our life,” said Val Walker, the author of “400 Friends and No One to Call: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community.”
The benefits of volunteering
In a study of 10,000 volunteers in Britain, about two-thirds agreed that their volunteering had helped them feel less isolated, particularly those ages 18 to 34. Sam Boyd, 24, the director of volunteer management at Special Olympics Maryland, said she sees even her most withdrawn volunteers “come alive” during a shift, and by the end of the day, “they’re fist bumping and elbow tapping with other people.” When volunteering, you can also “get to know more about yourself and broaden your view of the world,” she added. Among older adults, social isolation and loneliness are associated with higher rates of mortality, depression and cognitive decline. Experts say that volunteering not only helps people feel less lonely, it can also improve physical well-being.
A five-year study of more than 800 people in Detroit found that helping others who don’t live with you can act as a buffer against the negative effects of stress. Although the study participants encountered stressful life events like illness, job loss or financial difficulties, those who spent time doing tasks for others — like errands, child care and housework — were less likely to die than those who had not helped others. AARP Foundation Experience Corps, an intergenerational tutoring program, found numerous benefits to volunteering: More than 85 percent of volunteers felt that their lives had improved because of their involvement with the program and 98 percent reported that the program helped them stay physically and mentally active, said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation, the charitable affiliate of AARP. “People want to matter and to be valued across their life,” Ms. Ryerson said.
Gary Bagley, executive director of New York Cares, the largest volunteer organisation in New York City, suggested setting a small goal at first, like volunteering once a week or even once a month, and building from there.
“One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to decide ‘I will volunteer twice everyday for the next year’ because you’ll burn yourself out on it,” he said. “So think of something that’s manageable for you — not frightening in its scope of commitment — and just take the first step.” Research suggests that volunteering consistently is what appears to reap the most benefits.
Caron is a journalist with NYT©2021
The New York Times