billcunninghamWhen I lived in Los Angeles, I used to volunteer for my church. On many Sunday afternoons, I would join a group of men and women who went downtown and fed hungry people.

It wasn’t glamorous work: there are no photographers taking our pictures and some of the people receiving the food expressed little, if any, gratitude (one man even told me, “Is that all you got?”), but the recipients of those food boxes weren’t the only ones who benefitted. I’m sure I received much more from the process than they did.

Why is volunteering so good for us? I did some research on the subject. Many studies show that volunteering not only feels good, it actually improves a person’s physical and psychological health. “One of the best things we can do for our health is to learn to be more caring and compassionate,” says Stephen Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University in New York.

A study published in the journal Science found that money used to pay bills or buy things for ourselves is unrelated to how happy we are, but that donations to charities was directly correlated with levels of personal happiness. “Happiness is a by-product of living generously,” Post says.

Volunteering is good for our mental health. Research shows that volunteering:

· helps us stay active in our community
· prevents us from feeling socially isolated
· enhances our sense of belonging
· increases our sense of purpose and
· improves our perception of our own self-competence.

Wow, that’s an awful lot of good stuff from doing good for others. “People that help others live longer than those who don’t,” says Stephanie Brown, assistant professor of general medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and a faculty associate at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

A 2003 study by Brown followed more than 1,500 elderly couples for five years; it found that people who provided hands-on support (such as help with transportation, shopping housework or childcare) to friends, relatives or neighbors were half as likely to die over the study period as their less helpful counterparts.

It’s also pretty cool that science can now explain why volunteering makes us feel better about ourselves. “There’s a growing body of evidence showing that compassionate care and helping activities elevate levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine,” says Stephen Post, who wrote “Good Things Happen to Good People.” “They also impact the release of endorphins, the body’s natural opiates, resulting in what has been widely documented as the ‘helper’s high.’ ”

Compassionate activities are associated with elevated levels of oxytocin. Higher levels of oxytocin are associated with a reduction in the levels of certain stress hormones that cause wear and tear on the body. “Acts of kindness always move us away from hostile and angry emotions that are clearly connected with elevated stress and higher mortality over the years,” Post says.

You might be reading this and saying, “I’m too busy to volunteer and I don’t have any money to spare.” Luckily, it doesn’t take much altruism to reap the benefits of better health. “Studies emphasize that just a couple of hours of volunteering a week can make the difference,” Post says.

I know firsthand the benefits of volunteering: I volunteer my time offering pro-bono workshops in Southern California for various non-profit organizations. I also enjoy giving money to people on the street. Yes, I’m one of those people.

On a recent Monday night, after my yoga class, I walked past two ladies on El Cajon Boulevard who appeared homeless. I got to my car and paused. I had lots of coins in my spare change dish. Why not give them some?

So I did.

The ladies were very gracious and asked me to get down on my knees with them and thank God for this grace.

I did.

If you were driving by the yoga studio, you would have seen the three of us, down on our knees in front of a vacant lot, by the on-ramp to the 15 Freeway.

I still feel good about it…several weeks later.

Try it: give of yourself and see how good YOU feel.