The benefits of volunteering – but you need to define volunteering

As you know, I’m working on my book idea about loving your  neighbor. Currently, I’m researching about the benefits of volunteering.

Ironically, I was also asked this week to take part in a university survey about volunteering. The questions asked me about how I’ve felt in the last week (emotions, stress, etc) and how often I volunteer.

I hate surveys like that. First of all, they didn’t define “volunteer”. I marked that I volunteer once a week, because I actually go to the animal shelter once a week. After I was done, though, I realized that I didn’t include that I’m fostering a puppy for a local rescue group. That’s a 24/7 kind of volunteering. I also am doing a little bit of networking and promoting for an abolitionist group for Freedom Sunday. That’s an hour a week.

So I suppose I volunteer more than once a week.

As for my emotions and stress level the last week, the survey didn’t ask why I checked that I might be feeling sad, blue, tired, and even aimless in my life goals.

The weather this week was wonkier than it has been all winter. Freezing cold one day, then in the 50s the next, then a foot of snow a few days later. I don’t function well in winter, but especially when we have winter, spring and fall all in the same week.

Plus, we’re trying to get Bailey into her big girl crate. Talk about stress. No amount of volunteering is going to make me feel better. Wait, caring for Bailey is technically volunteering.

The 2010 United Healthcare/Volunteer Match Do Good, Live Well study found that volunteers have less stress, feel better about themselves, and generally get a lot of positive benefits from doing good for others. And I would totally agree with that.

But a survey like the one I took this week doesn’t capture the reality of my volunteering. Saturday at the shelter, for example, was nightmarishly stressful – but I love it. I wouldn’t want to do it every day, but that one day of the week I’m there, I know that not only am I helping people adopt animals, I’m also helping the staff. It’s both draining and fulfilling.

The daily stress of caring for a foster puppy is a whole other matter. LOVE this puppy. Love, love, love her. But I also have two grown Border Collies; three dogs is just too much for me and our small house. And a puppy requires constant supervision. That kind of volunteering is actually wearing me out right now – not because I regret fostering the puppy. Quite the opposite. It’s just that a puppy is a lot of work.

Interestingly, the United Healthcare study found that giving more and doing more doesn’t necessarily mean feeling better or happier. In fact, there’s a plateau at about 100 hours a year.  It’s called “compassion fatigue” – and the effects can be severe fatigue, distancing from close relationships, and even depression.

Been there, done that. For several years, I wore myself completely down “doing for others” – because “volunteering” can also be driving people around, and listening to people unload their problems, and other non-typical volunteer activities. I ended up physically and spiritually drained. Then I learned the most wonderful word in the English language: “boundaries.” Although I don’t know that I’m actually recovered completely.

But that’s a story for another day.

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