Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tis Better to Give than to Receive

While speaking to my mother last week, she mentioned that she finally had her hallway and staircase walls repainted--and it didn't cost her anything at all. How was this possible, I asked? She explained that her boyfriend Ken and a work colleague of his had developed a relationship over the years of lending each other their expertise from time-to-time when needed (he is a professional carpenter and his friend is a professional painter). When Ken learned that his friend's wife would be away for Thanksgiving and that he'd be at home with nothing to do, Ken asked if he'd be able to come over to help pain my mom's walls. He happily agreed and together they got the job done in one afternoon, and likely enjoyed each other's company as well.

This kind of "grow roots in a community, know thy neighbor, and participate actively in supporting those around you" mentality was felt strongly in American life in decades past, but may be dwindling in recent years as more folks turn their minds to making ends meet in this multi-year recession. Additionally, many now live in larger cities where the establishment of a supportive community can be more difficult--one's community isn't necessarily built by those living in the apartment next door a religious congregation or political activity. And we could mention the rise of the internet, with so many "virtual" ways to be in contact with people without any actual physical contact.

Strong communities are important for revitalizing cities and towns as well as fortifying the living standards and health of its residents. Studies show that being an active contributor to a community is important to psychological and physical well-being. A few years ago, the Corporation for National and Community Service conducted a review of recent research on the health benefits of volunteering. They published a number of valuable findings, including:
  • Volunteering leads to greater life satisfaction and lower rates of depression. Evidence indicates that volunteering has a positive effect on social psychological factors, such as a personal sense of purpose and accomplishment, and enhances a person's social networks to buffer stress and reduce disease risk.
  • Older volunteers are most likely to receive greater health benefits from volunteering. These benefits include improved physical and mental health and greater life satisfaction.
  • Individuals who volunteer live longer. Several longitudinal studies have found that those individuals who volunteer during the first wave of the survey have lower mortality rates at the second wave of the survey, even when taking into account such factors as physical health, age, socioeconomic status and gender. Researchers have also found that when patients with chronic or serious illness volunteer, they receive benefits beyond what can be achieved through medical care.  
All of this sounds great, but where can one get started with volunteering their time and in turn receiving the benefits that come along with community engagement? Here's the beautiful thing (and another slightly cliché saying)--"if you build it, they will come." That is, if you build a tool that helps people come together and help one another, folks will come out of the woodwork...