Aristotle once mused that the meaning of life is “to serve others and do good.” From the grandmother sewing baby blankets to the child who serves peanut butter sandwiches to our homeless friends, from Big Brothers and Big Sisters mentoring teens to teams building homes with Habitat for Humanity, Utah is home to some amazing volunteers.
In fact, Utah leads the nation for volunteering. Over 43 percent of our residents volunteer, well above the national average of just under 25 percent. With 844,023 volunteers and an average of 75.6 volunteer hours per capita (more than double the national average of 31 hours per year) Utah volunteers donate 170.36 million hours of service and a dollar value of $3.8 billion.
April is National Volunteer Month and the opportunities for service abound. If you need ideas, check out JustServe.org or do a simple Google search for your area. One of the great parts of volunteering is its multiple benefits. They go much broader than just the recipient — they benefit the giver, the community, the state, nation and eventually, can change the world.
Mental health benefits include lower rates of depression, increased feelings of connectedness and belonging and decreased loneliness. Increased happiness and life satisfaction are common results from volunteering. Feeling like we are making a difference and are part of a bigger story than just our little corner gives meaning to our lives. Serving with others — especially others who may have a different life story from our own — helps to break down barriers of misunderstanding, fear and bias and strengthens our communities and improves lives at the same time.
There are also physical benefits, including a longer life, a stronger immune system and lower blood pressure. An interesting 2012 study in the journal Health Psychology found that there was a caveat. People who volunteered regularly lived longer — but only if they were altruistic in their reasons. In other words, no benefit was seen for those who were volunteering to make themselves feel better, but there was a noted benefit for those who were trying to help others.
Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, psychologist and creator of the field of logotherapy wrote the book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” He believed that “life is never made unbearable by circumstances but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” His work focused on the belief that a sense of meaning and purpose in one’s life that is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in life. Frankl also quoted Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
Volunteering — serving — can provide meaning and purpose in our lives that have broad-reaching effects. Research into youth who volunteer show increased academic achievement, increased civic engagement and a reduction in risky behaviors. In a report by “Opportunity Nation,” they found that civic engagement is linked with upward mobility for youth. In particular, they say that volunteerism can help build social capital for youth and help life them out of poverty, resulting in both individual and community benefits. April 20-22, 2018 are designated as Global Youth Service Days and are part of an annual campaign to get kids volunteering.
Serving others and making your mark on the world is now permeating business culture as well and “social entrepreneurship” is on the rise. A recent study of millennials show a whopping 94 percent want to use their skills to benefit a cause. Combining for-profit business and giving back to the community — or even tackling global issues like eradicating hunger — is becoming more and more common.
TOMS, the shoe company, is a great example. Founded in 2006, the company provides a new pair of shoes each time they make a sale. They contribute to saving or restoring eyesight in developing countries when they sell TOMS eyewear and if you buy a TOMS Bag, the company provides training for skilled birth attendants and birth kits for expectant mothers. They have customers who buy from them explicitly because of their philanthropic work.
As we look for ways to volunteer during the month of April, perhaps one more quote from Viktor Frankl can be our motto for the month: “The meaning of life is to give life meaning.”
Holly Richardson, a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune, is touched by the many people she meets that are making a difference every day.