Volunteer for a better LIFE
Looking to boost your personal wellbeing, along with that of others? A happiness high is guaranteed when you lend a helping hand, writes Áilín Quinlan
Getting involved in his community brought Mark Gaffney friends, helped his family settle into a new country, supported him through a period of unemployment - and even helped him find a new career.
The challenge of relocating his family from London to the West Cork town of Bantry 16 years ago was a major one so, in a bid to settle in, Mark embarked on a cycle of community activism and volunteer work.
"The only way I could get to know people was to volunteer, because I didn't drink!" he quips.
For 14 years, Mark helped out in his local GAA, soccer and boxing clubs, fundraised for the installation of defibrillators and established two Men's Shed initiatives.
"I spent 25-30 hours a week volunteering," the father-of-three recalls. "It was a big commitment but the rewards were immense: much of my social interaction came through volunteering. It helped me make friends, meet people and introduce my family to the community."
Along with serving as "a great stress-buster" on a day-to-day basis, his volunteer work was a crucial support when he lost his job in the construction sector in 2012.
"When I became unemployed, the volunteering was a massive help in giving me a purpose in life," recalls Mark (49), who later earned a diploma in youth and community affairs and is now a development officer with the West Cork Development Partnership.
"It made that year much more bearable because it helped counteract the feelings of despair that unemployment can sometimes bring. My volunteer work also led me to a career path and job that I love - working and assisting others to get more actively involved in the community."
Social interaction is crucial for good mental health, says Dr Malie Coyne, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at NUI Galway. A board member with the Lust for Life mental health charity, she says helping others boosts our levels of the feelgood hormone serotonin, which is responsible for feelings of safety and wellbeing. "There's a phenomenon called 'helper's high' which is experienced in the volunteering sector," says Dr Coyne, who points to a growing body of research indicating strong links between community involvement and emotional wellbeing. "Common reasons for the link include feeling useful, purposeful and valued, feeling connected to the community and having a sense of belonging."
Community involvement also brings a sense of perspective on life and encourages an appreciation of life's blessings. "These are the combined effects of interacting with other people and helping people," says Dr Coyne, who adds that volunteering can additionally boost our physical health.
"Research has also shown that volunteering reduces inflammation associated with physical health problems such as diabetes, chronic pain, cancer, obesity and migraines," she explains, adding that volunteering increases the levels of oxytocin, a cardio-protective hormone - it lowers blood pressure, thus reducing your risk of heart disease."I'm a champion of volunteering because it represents a win-win situation for all involved," she declares.
A good example of this "win-win" is the monthly Active Lunch Club organised through the GAA Healthy Clubs Project for older people in the Co Galway village of Ballinderreen.
One of those who enjoys the regular outing is 88-year-old Ballinderreen resident Mary, who reports that the monthly lunch is a great way to catch up with neighbours, enjoy a session of music and dancing, and combat loneliness. "We'd be stuck in the house otherwise," she declares.
However, it's not just the diners who benefit: Carmel Lane, one of the volunteers, says she always finds herself "on a high" after helping out at the lunches, which cater for up to 35 older residents.
"Despite the fact that you're on your feet for three hours, setting up, serving food and clearing away, as well as stopping for chats, you leave the community hall on a high," says Carmel (58), a school secretary who has been volunteering with the village's Healthy Clubs initiative for two years.
"The feeling you get is hard to describe but it's wonderful - you feel you've been doing some good in your locality."
A growing body of research shows that staying active, socially engaged and mentally stimulated through learning new things can help lower the risk of contracting Alzheimer's disease and depression; a large Swedish study published in 2002, for example, showed that stimulating activity - mentally or socially orientated - could protect against dementia.
"You're getting out and meeting people, receiving stimulation, and participating in community activities," says Dr Sumi Dunne, a GP in Portarlington and lecturer in General Practice.
Outdoor activities, such as Tidy Towns work, are good for physical health, while being involved in community activities staves off feelings of isolation, she says.
"Community activism embraces all sectors of society, and being involved opens the community up to you," she adds. "You feel more included, which helps with mental health."
Volunteering can also counteract the potential feelings of isolation brought about by retirement or unemployment.
When Tipperary bus driver Christy took early retirement from his job with Bus Éireann in 2015 following his recovery from prostate cancer and a bout of depression, he joined his local Men's Shed, first in Clonmel, then in his village of Mullinahone, "to have something to do".
During his years driving the bus, Christy (61) had noticed that several men who were unemployed or retired were regularly travelling from Tipperary to Dublin just to fill the day. "It was sad," he recalls.
Mullinahone's 14 Shed members, ranging in age from men in their 40s to their 80s, meet for a chat, go on day excursions and use their skills for the good of the community, building buddy benches for the schoolyard, or flower boxes or birdhouses. They even carry out bits of repair work for local people, and have been known to frame the odd picture or two.
"It's very sociable," says Christy. "For me, the Men's Shed keeps the mind alert. It gives you a sense of purpose. You're involved; you're talking to your peers. Instead of nodding the head to someone, you stop to have a chat.
"When I retired, I lost work buddies and missed the canteen chat, but this is even better. It's good for your mental health. It's great in terms of your mood - it keeps you going and gives us all something to look forward to."
Retiree Johnny (76) is a strong advocate of community involvement. A volunteer with the local credit union in Broomfield, Collon, Co Meath, for nearly 50 years until it amalgamated with a sister organisation, he has also been chairman of the local Men's Shed since its inception in 2012 and has held positions on the committees of several local clubs. "It helps me stay involved with the community and keeps my organisational skills sharp - it's stimulating," he says. "It keeps your mind active and gives you a sense of self-worth in the context of your community."
A year ago, Seana Slattery (65) decided to help out with her local Meals on Wheels organisation in the Co Cork town of Dunmanway; two or three days a week she peels spuds, makes large pots of vegetable soup and does the washing-up. "It's made a huge difference to me. I live alone, and the volunteers have become my family," says the retired businesswoman, who now teaches creative writing.
"I feel more useful within the community. Volunteering has given me a sense of being needed and being of value to my community.
"It's given structure to my life. I've also come to know more and different people through my volunteer work, and I'm working with great people too! All the people in the kitchen are the best bunch of people I have met - I love it! It gives me a sense of purpose."
Involvement in your local community is not just key to good health and happiness, according to family doctor Andrew Jordan. It can provide you with a network of support during difficult life events.
The GP based in Tallaght and Terenure, - chairman of the National Association of GPs - says, "The more involved people are in their community, the more they know about their area and what's going on.
"People who are heavily involved in the community are the kind who can talk to young fellas making a nuisance of themselves, for example - they'd be more likely to know the youths.
"They're more connected and take more of an interest. They have a greater sense of ownership than people who are not so involved. They've a sense of pride and sense of belonging. All of that is good for your mental health.
"Being involved also means you get to know more people and become more deeply embedded in your community - and therefore it's also more likely that people within the community will come to your assistance at a difficult time."
Want to join in? Start right here
The Irish Men's Sheds Association
Formed in 2011, this is a community-based, non-commercial organisation offering an environment for men to gather or work on meaningful projects at their own pace, in their own time and in the company of other men.
The GAA Healthy Clubs Project
Created in 2013, with the support of the HSE, National Office for Suicide Prevention, Irish Life and Healthy Ireland, its aim is to make every GAA club a hub for health and wellbeing through a variety of community activities. gaa.ie/my-gaa/community-and-health/ healthy-club
Volunteers practise their passion for the good of their community; work can involve landscaping, sustainable living or a litter pick. The hugely popular annual competition, which is a Government initiative and is dependent on volunteer involvement, has been encouraging community effort for decades.
Lions Club members are involved in a wide range of activities, from suicide prevention and anti-bullying campaigns to combating homelessness.
Rotary in Ireland
An international organisation with local roots, Rotary has projects ongoing around Ireland and the world. Local and international causes are championed by each individual club at their discretion.
Irish Rural Link
This national network represents the interests of community groups in disadvantaged and marginalised rural areas by highlighting problems, advocating appropriate policies and sharing experiences and examples of good practice. irishrurallink.ie
Volunteer Ireland Volunteer Ireland offers information and lots of opportunities to get involved in your community or area of interest.