If you have a full-time job and also attempt to be a good friend, partner, parent and pet owner, you might assume that adding volunteering to the mix would make you feel more stressed. 

Yet numerous studies show the opposite: A 2015 study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that people who both worked and volunteered actually had better mental health and fewer feelings of work-life conflict. A 2013 study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that adults over age 50 who volunteered regularly were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers. Most surprising of all, a 2012 study published in Psychological Science found that “spending time on others increases one’s sense of time affluence … driven by a boosted sense of self-efficacy.” 

In other words, giving your time in service of others can make you feel as if you have more time, even if your schedule is busier.

The good news is that for animal lovers, opportunities abound: Shelters, rescues and sanctuaries are almost always looking for people to help with animal care, administrative tasks, cleaning and laundry, and many shelters offer guidance on making inexpensive toys for residents or gathering pet care supplies like old towels and blankets from friends and neighbors. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) recruits Animal Rescue Team and humane policy volunteers all year long.

Volunteer With Us

It’s the gifting of your time that really locks in those warm and fuzzy feelings. Doing good is so good for you, you could even call it selfish.

You might be feeling inspired already, or you might be scoffing at the idea of an overstuffed life granting you healthy blood pressure. Repeat after us: Volunteering doesn’t have to mean giving up your entire weekend to muck out goat sheds at a local farm animal sanctuary or spending hours each day writing letters to politicians. The psychological and physical benefits Carnegie Mellon attributed to volunteering were linked to 200 volunteer hours each year, which is around three to four hours a week or a couple of days each month.

Even better, a British study published last year in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that, even accounting for preexisting levels of well-being, 70,000 participants reported better overall health and life satisfaction if they’d volunteered just in the past year, with greater benefits the more frequently they volunteered. 

It’s the gifting of your time that really locks in those warm and fuzzy feelings, so you—yes, even you—might benefit from doing some extra good on the side. Doing good is so good for you, you could even call it selfish.

Woman sitting with dog at park.
Janai Smith, a volunteer with PAWS NY, takes Storm the dog for a walk. The New York City nonprofit enlists volunteers to provide pet care services for vulnerable people, such as walking the dogs of homebound clients.
Emily Dewan Photography

What if I’m not feeling it?

If you already volunteer and you’re not getting the “helper’s high” researchers have been going on about since the ’80s, consider where you’re volunteering and how much time you’re gifting. 

Michele Elek teaches at a Phoenix middle school with a large number of low-income, transient families. She has an hourlong commute each way and three dogs. For the past 15 years, she’s also volunteered for animals almost every weekend, most recently at her local shelter, doing laundry, walking dogs and reading to or sitting with nervous animals. 

Animals “are in situations through no fault of their own, so as long as you [don’t] take things personally, and really just build that foundation and that relationship and that trust with them, that’s how you see them flourish. It kind of crosses over” to her teaching job, says Elek, who provides her students with squeezy stress balls and gives them “job” titles, like “Director of Pet Care” for the student in charge of feeding the campus cat colony that day. In an overwhelming year of unknowns, it helps to “control what you can control.”

Since 2014, Elek has also served as a volunteer for the Humane Society of the United States, building support for legislation that helps animals. “Everyone can do a little something. Making phone calls, sending emails, sending cards, find what works for you in your time frame, your schedule, your energy level and what you have going on in your life; there’s some volunteer need out there,” says Elek. “I wanted to do something, rather than just sit and feel bad and be depressed.”

This flexibility is what makes volunteering work for Elek. Both organizations ask for as much or as little time as she can give, on the days and in the ways she can give it. “The shelter that I volunteer at makes it easy. You don’t have to commit, you just show up, you clock in, ‘whatever you can do is what you can do, we’ll take it,’ ” she says. 

Woman cleaning a kitten's nose.
For those who prefer to help from home, most shelters and rescues need fosters throughout kitten season.
Kim Cook
AP Images for The HSUS

Look for volunteer programs that give you this understanding of what’s expected and realistically work with your schedule, says Hilary Hager, senior director of outreach and engagement at the HSUS, whether that’s a commitment to give 10 hours a week or to do as much as you like. If you’re unsure of how much or what you’re supposed to be doing, or feel pressured to participate in volunteer activities that don’t fit your schedule, or feel guilty that you can’t do more once you see how much needs to be done, you’re setting yourself up for a stressful volunteer experience.

“One of the things I’ve always said to my volunteers is that I want their volunteer time to be the highlight of their week. I want them to be so excited: ‘It’s Thursday, I get to go to the shelter,’ ” says Hager. “If it ever stops feeling that way, then I think that it is worth having a conversation” about the ways and how often you’re able to volunteer. “The volunteer program’s role is to ask, but it’s the volunteer’s responsibility to say no.” 

It can help to pick volunteer programs that allow you to complete tasks with a beginning, middle and end, says Hager—taking a dog for a walk or hosting an online fundraiser—and enough volunteers to complete all the tasks. You’re not going to feel good about your volunteer experience if hundreds of dogs need walking and you know there are only enough volunteers to walk a few. It’s on the organization to ensure it has enough volunteers to walk those dogs every day—not you as a volunteer.

One of the things I’ve always said to my volunteers is that I want their volunteer time to be the highlight of their week. I want them to be so excited: ‘It’s Thursday, I get to go to the shelter.'

Hilary Hager, the Humane Society of the United States

Volunteers “need to focus on the parts that they can really do and feel good about. It’s hard because we’re helpers, and we want to fix things, and we see things that need to be fixed,” Hager says. “So sometimes out of just concern for others we want to do more, but we can’t do it to our own detriment. You have to set boundaries just like you do with anything else.”

A few parting words: A 2012 study published in Health Psychology showed that only those who volunteer for altruistic—not self-oriented—reasons are gifted with the magical benefits of volunteering. So pick a good volunteer program, but also pick a cause you really care about; otherwise, that helper’s high might be ever-elusive. 

Woman volunteer at a shelter with a happy dog.
Studies show that volunteering is a win-win for the volunteer and the recipient, sometimes in obvious ways: Anyone who volunteers to walk dogs gets both outdoor physical exercise and puppy-dog eyes.
Amie Chou

How much is too much of a good thing?

Still skeptical about adding volunteerism to your life on top of your existing job? Consider burnout: The World Health Organization describes it as an occupational phenomenon characterized by feelings of exhaustion, cynicism about your job and reduced professional efficacy. Burnout isn’t a mental disorder, and it isn’t related to your having a leaky roof or going through a divorce, although these are very real stressors that will affect your emotional resilience and contribute to your feeling overwhelmed. According to the WHO, burnout on its own is an exclusively occupational hazard.

So what does cause burnout? In 2017, employee recognition and retention company O.C. Tanner published a white paper on workplace culture after interviewing over 10,000 employees worldwide. The company determined the “fundamental building blocks” of workplace happiness: purpose, opportunity, success, appreciation, well-being and leadership. If you don’t feel connected to your organization’s reason for being or the difference it makes in the world, if you’re not learning new skills, and if your contributions aren’t recognized, you’re likely to feel burned out at work.

But carefully chosen volunteer activities can actually serve as a mental health buffer both at home and at work. A 2001 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that volunteering improves aspects of well-being that mirror those building blocks of workplace happiness: mood, life satisfaction, self-esteem, sense of control over life and physical health. 

Woman outside with a goat at a farm rescue.
Volunteers like All Animals editorial manager Kelly L. Williams can shovel poop, clean outdoor shelters and pet residents at Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Maryland.
Emily Hamlin Smith

Not only that, but a 2013 study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology found that volunteering is not subject to “hedonic adaptation,” a term for the human tendency to return to a set level of happiness regardless of positive or negative life changes. (In 1978, a landmark study examined lottery winners and found that, 18 months later, they were neither more nor less happy than before the life-altering event.) 

Hedonic adaptation doesn’t happen as much with volunteering. Volunteering not only boosts happiness, but continues to boost it over time, so much so that the 2013 study authors suggested that public policymakers should find ways to “stimulate volunteering and thus happiness.” 

“I’ve met a lot of people who, even when things are hard in their volunteer job, they’re like, ‘Man, but this is the kind of hard I want,’ ” says Hager. “ ‘I don’t want the hard stuff with my accounting job or my hard stuff in the HR department at my company. This is a fun, different set of problems for me to grapple with and try to solve.’ ”

Another study, published in Psychological Science in 2018, invited participants to gift small amounts of money either to themselves or others over the course of two experiments. The authors found that the feeling of giving to others, even repeatedly, never got old for participants. 

They concluded: “The happiness we get from giving appears to sustain itself.”

“When it feels like you can’t help yourself, maybe sometimes it can help to help others,” says Hager.  “And by helping others, you wind up helping yourself.”

Volunteer for the HSUS

The HSUS recently launched its Humane Policy Volunteer Leader program, combining the power of district leader and state council volunteers to shape animal protection policy at the local, state and federal levels. After applying online, answering questions via video chat and getting oriented during a welcome call, volunteers can expect to spend two to three hours a week contacting legislators and educating the public on animal protection issues, mostly from home. We chatted with Carol Misseldine, HSUS senior director of outreach and engagement and co-leader of the program, about why it’s the perfect opportunity to achieve that helper’s high.

Profile of Carol Misseldine
Carol Misseldine
Jendi Coursey
Jendi Coursey Communications

How does the HSUS support volunteers who might be intimidated by the legislative process?

One of the first things we do is provide volunteers with a legislative reference guide so they can identify their elected officials  and consolidate their contact information. We hold monthly phone calls that highlight how to be an effective advocate and break down how the legislative process works.

Volunteers receive three to five action alerts from me every month related to the HSUS’s priority federal bills. I provide resources so that they can better understand what the bill is about and what it would do and how to most effectively weigh in. We link to a lot of resources in the volunteer hub on basic legislative advocacy and how a bill becomes a law and how governance works at the federal, state and local levels.

One of the things these volunteers have told me is how grateful they are to be part of this program, because they do learn so much. We really make it a priority to provide the support and training they need to feel comfortable in this role. 

How would you describe the program’s impact?

We have seen an increase in the numbers of animal protection laws enacted since 2005 when the HSUS state director program was launched, and again since 2013 and 2014 when these volunteer leader programs were launched. We’re also seeing a jump in the adoption of local animal protection ordinances.

We also coordinate with HSUS campaigns to advance local policies. We worked with the puppy mill campaign to urge volunteers to work with their city council and their county boards to bar local pet stores from selling animals who come from puppy mills. Over 370 jurisdictions have now taken that action, and entire states are now adopting laws that stop the sale of animals from puppy mills in pet stores.

When there are almost 700 volunteers and their networks across the country calling Congress in the same week about the same issue, it has a huge impact.

Right now, it could not be clearer that our country is polarized—but animal protection is actually one of the few issues that unites us. We are a nonpartisan movement. We have people from all sides of the political spectrum in our volunteer program all working together to advance animal protection. That’s something that’s really powerful about this movement. 

Learn More About the Humane Policy Volunteer Leader Program

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