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It was fascinating to see over the lockdown period how keen people were to volunteer. For example:

  • The NHS put out a request for volunteers and hoped to recruit 250,000 people. They got 750,000
  • Here in Oxford, Oxford Hub recruited 5,500 local volunteers in a matter of weeks and set up 600+ street-level WhatsApp groups
  • In the States, Liam Elkind, a Yale student, built Invisible Hands, a simple website to connect his friends with neighbours so they could pick up groceries, prescriptions and other necessities. He recruited 10,000 volunteers all over the States, Australia, Malaysia and Kenya and other nations 

You can see more examples by checking out the the hashtag #covidkindness on Twitter

But why do people want to volunteer?

The act of helping people can boost our own wellbeing. People want the world to be a better, safer, happier place and they want to know what they can do. Volunteering increases people's sense of agency and wellbeing. In other words: helping people makes us happy.

For some of the science behind this, I turned to the Happiness Lab podcast, with Yale professor Dr Laurie Santos. In 2018 her course at Yale, titled Psychology and the Good Life became the most popular course in Yale's history, with approximately a quarter of Yale's undergraduates enrolled.

In episode 5 of her podcast, 'Help others to help yourself', Dr Santos interviews David DeSteno, a Psychology Professor. He talks about two categories of emotion:

  • basic emotions, related to the physical landscape, such as anger and fear, and what he calls
  • social emotions, related to personal interaction, such as gratitude, guilt and compassion.

Compassion, Professor DeStono tells us, is the emotion we feel when we want to give care to someone. 'I understand you’re in distress and I want to do something about it'. It's a demonstration of empathy. But, he says, you need to move past empathy, or you can get burned out and overwhelmed feeling everyone’s distress. Helping other people by volunteering is an effective way to do this.

What are the benefits of volunteering?

As well as helping you to focus on long-term outcomes rather than wanting to 'feel good now', volunteering creates a 3-way win: 

  • It's a win for the person receiving the help, directly through th service provided but also but the demonstration that the world is,perhaps, not such a bad place after all
  • It's a win for the person giving the help - it makes them feel happy
  • And it's a win for society at large, creating a sort of 'upward spiral of gratitude and compassion'. People receiving help can be motivated to 'pay it forward' to someone else, and the more you help, the more you want to help

There are some great volunteering programmes going on in Oxford right now. If you'd like to explore how your employees can get involved please get in touch