Want to be happy? Try volunteering

snow capped mountain

Bishop Fulton Sheen tells the story of a wealthy man named James. In his retirement years, James came to the faith. He consequently donated much of his wealth to the Church and began traveling the world speaking to people about the beauty of the Catholic faith. He was journeying in Mongolia hiking through the Altay Mountains with a local guide named Singh. As the two men hiked in this remote region a strong blizzard came through. Singh knew the territory well and found them shelter in a cave. From their shelter, James heard a faint yell for help from someone caught in the blizzard. “Someone is in trouble. We must go out there to help him,” James said. Singh replied back, “Are you crazy? If we go out there, we’ll die! Leave him be and worry about yourself instead.” But, James had this inner urge to help the man. So, he went out into the snowstorm to rescue the man in need. With this sense of purpose, James received a surge of energy. He found the stranger and returned him safely into the cave. As James entered the cave he noticed that Singh’s body laid lifeless. Singh had died from the cold. Where James had new life rush into him from helping someone, Singh’s life was sucked away in only wanting to look out after himself.

This story cuts in the opposite direction of our culture in which we constantly seek things and experiences for our own comfort and pleasure. Of course, the popular view is that acquiring possessions and cool experiences are supposed to give us an emotional thrill. In the eyes of the culture, there is no emotional boost in letting go of your possessions and risking your comfort and even life to go save another life.

We now come to the spiritual maxim that Paul reminded those in the early Church on what Jesus had taught them – “It is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35).

Under the spiritual equation, the giver is always happier than the receiver. However, our consumer culture says otherwise. Our society encourages the individual not the other to be at the center. Here, we are to buy, to consume and receive endless “things” and experiences in order to enhance one’s comfort and fulfillment. The pop culture and the faith are presented as two worlds that stand in stark contrast in which we must ask-  is giving really better than receiving?

In a word, yes it is. And basic philosophy will first tell us how.

All philosophers agree on what is called the law of causality. Within the principle of causality is the axiom that the cause is always greater to or equal to the effect. This means that the effect can never be greater than the cause. Therefore, if receiving is the effect, and giving is the cause, giving (the cause) is profoundly greater than the effect (receiving). Without giving, the effect of receiving is impossible. So, if you like the effect of receiving, you need to love the cause of giving. Without the cause of giving nothing can be received. In this, the laws of logic confirms the spiritual equation that giving is indeed greater than receiving.

Now, there are many ways we can be in the form of a giver – as a parent, by serving in the military, or rescue service, even as an employee. However, an often overlooked form of giving is the person who continuously volunteers.

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The basic definition of a volunteer is “a person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task.” One of the key words here is “free.” Notice the volunteer is not being forced to work or being paid to. Therefore, the volunteer is in pure giving mode. On the surface, it appears there is nothing in it for the volunteer. They get no money. They have to take time away from their family. Very often the tasks they perform are hard or mundane and go unnoticed or under appreciated. Here, is where the volunteer enters into a Christ-like mode. In volunteering there exists a sort-of dying of the self. There is nothing in it for the volunteer in performing their arduous, thankless job. This is exactly what Christ experienced in getting beaten, mocked and killed all the while his friends abandoned him. Notice too that Jesus underwent all this suffering only to receive a rather benign response of appreciation from the very people he rescued.

Initially, our societal intuition tells us that the receiver should be happier and more fulfilled than the giver. However, let’s look to the Sermon on the Mount to get a better perspective on which is better in the long run. In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses the phrase “blessed” repeatedly. The word “blessed” is translated into the Greek word makarios, which means to be happy or blissful. Its core meaning reflects a self-contained happiness. So, when we hear the “blessed” in the beatitudes we can just as sure plug in the word “happy.” We can now notice that those who are “happy” in the beatitudes tend to be the ones who suffer, are forgotten, and are less popular – much like the volunteer.

However, from this forgotten mundane work, the volunteer eventually receives the spiritual blessing that Jesus talks about. There have been many studies about the happiness level of people who gave money to charities or have volunteered their time. Across the board, these studies illuminate the point that those who give (whether in money or time) tend to be the most fulfilled and content.

One such article indicated that “volunteers were 42% more likely to be very happy than non-volunteers.” This is so much so that the brain chemistry of volunteers appears to light up more so than non-volunteers. For example, people who give often report feelings of euphoria, which psychologists have referred to as the “Helper’s High.” They believe that charitable activity induces endorphins that produce a mild version of the sensations people get from drugs like morphine.

Charity and volunteering also lower the stress hormones that cause unhappiness. In one experiment at Duke University, those that volunteered were found to have dramatically lower levels of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine in their brains than those who had not performed volunteer work.

Volunteering is also linked to obtaining a sense of purpose within the self. When a person consistently volunteers they receive a strong awareness of achievement, worth, and increased levels of contentment. And psychologists routinely point out the health benefits of having a sense of purpose.

Isn’t it interesting that science illuminates that those that volunteer are more content and less stressed than those who don’t? No wonder Paul asserting that giving is better than receiving and that we should “serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5: 13). Throughout the Bible, there is repeated messages that the ones who give and go through a Christ-like experience (like volunteering), will inevitably receive that natural human high.

“Give, and it shall be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, shall be put into your lap. For with the same measure that you shall give, it shall be measured to you again” (Luke 6:38).

God is the giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). Therefore, when the volunteer goes in giving mode he or she is imaging God, and in this stage, they will find their true happiness.

The findings by recent research reveal the Divine recipe that appears to be a paradox – when you do something without expecting anything in return, you eventually do get something in return – that is a happiness that far exceeds what the pop culture can deliver for you.

In the snowstorm story, the volunteer stands in position of James. He goes out into the world not merely focused on his self, but rather focused on serving the other. The person who does not volunteer stands in position of Singh. He is turned inward, focused only towards himself and as a result, becomes life-less.

In the Church today, we need volunteers to help play a role in the mystical body. The Church wouldn’t be effective without volunteers. And one of the most pressing roles of volunteers is for the youth. Young kids are incredibly impressionable and sadly easily persuaded by the lies of the pop culture. Kids need to understand the faith, but do we have those ready to teach it and be present. As Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37). Will you be one of those rare, elite workers in Christ’s vineyard and volunteer? Will you be James or will you be Singh? The answer lies in your heart.

As Scripture alludes, the Lord rejoices in a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:6-7). Your soul as well will rejoice in becoming a cheerful giver. If anything, give it a try to test it out.


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