Not to be confused with pity, sympathy, or empathy, compassionis what gives birth to volunteering. Let’s drill a little deeper and examine the differences:

Pityis a thought that usually results from an encounter with an unfortunate or injured person, animal, or situation. It usually ends here—a mental acknowledgment that isn’t followed by action steps.

Sympathyis a feeling of concern for another, the desire to see them better off or happier. It can include being personally affected emotionally by an encounter.

Empathyis more than the recognition of another’s suffering. Often characterized as the ability to put oneself into another’s shoes; it’s a combination of thinking and feeling—a deep emotional resonance that can spark a desire to alleviate another’s suffering. It’s responding to the needs of othersbased on how we feel.

Compassionis a profound and positive emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to actions that work toward alleviating another person’s suffering. It’s responding to the needs of others regardless of how we feel.

Science tells us that when we experience sustained positive emotions like compassion, care, forgiveness, gratitude, and patience, our body produces dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which is secreted by the adrenal glands. DHEA is known as the vitality hormone; it accelerates renewal and improves our health, so it’s surprising that only a quarter of the Americanpopulation volunteers.

The 22 percent of American men and 28 percent of American women who do volunteer, experience life-altering personal and societal rewards that await those who serve others.

The most frequently performed volunteer activities are food servicing (11 percent), fundraising (10 percent), and teaching (9 percent). Volunteers put in the most hours with religious organizations (33 percent), educational and youth services (25 percent), and social and community services (14 percent).

You’ve heard it said that “time is money.” The estimated value of the work of all 2014 American volunteers was $173 billion.

People who volunteer say:

  • It helps them manage a chronic illness.
  • It improves their mood.
  • It makes their community a better place.
  • It lowers their stress levels.
  • It enriches their sense of purpose in life.

WHY we do what we do—our motivation—matters. Volunteers live longer than non-volunteers. However, people who volunteer for self-oriented, rather than other-oriented reasons, see no change in longevity.

A Journal of Health and Social Behaviorstudy revealed that adults age 60+ who volunteer for two or more organizations see a 63 percent lower mortality rate compared to their non-volunteering counterparts. They also discovered that volunteering improves happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, a sense of control over life, physical health, and helps to reduce symptoms of depression.

But these areas of improvement didn’t happen with a hit or miss style of volunteering. To experience the maximum health benefits of volunteering, researchers believe we need to reach a “volunteer threshold.” Different studies have variously defined this as volunteering with two or more organizations for at least one hundred hours per year.

In 2008, scientists scanned the brain of a French Buddhist monk as he meditated on compassion for others. The brain scan showed “an abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity.”

Charitable activities trigger pleasure-inducing endorphins in the brain. Psychologists have named this state of euphoria linked to giving “helper’s high.” One survey found that people who gave money to charity were 43 percent more likely to consider themselves “very happy.”

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”


In my book, The Business of Being: Soul Purpose In and Out of the Workplace, I discuss what happens when companies organize volunteer initiatives:

Employeescan expect to see a reduction in stress, build teamwork and time-management skills, and develop positive feelings toward their employer.

Employerscan expect to lower healthcare costs, see a boost in employee productivity, and build stronger colleague relationships.

Getting Started

In a simple Google search, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many people and places in your local community can use your talents, time, and treasures. But volunteering isn’t limited to your own back yard. Become a voluntourist!The most popular volunteer activities for traveling Americans are working with children, working in education, environmental protection and recovery, wildlife recovery or habitat, and job creation or economic projects.

Note: the places most desperate for help may not have a website. Be a pioneer and discover one of them.

Long-term volunteering is easier and more affordable than you might imagine. Many organizations offer free room and board in return for your service.

A National Institute of Health study found that donating to charity triggers sections of the brain associated with pleasure, trust, and social connection that result in a “warm glow”sensation. It turns out, giving is receiving!

Laurie Buchanan, Ph.D.
Laurie Buchanan is a former holistic health practitioner and transformational life coach. She holds a doctorate in holistic health with an emphasis in energy medicine. Her first two books—Note to Self: A Seven-Step Path to Gratitude and Growth, and The Business of Being: Soul Purpose In and Out of the Workplace, are nonfiction titles designed to motivate, inspire, and transform. Coming soon, her third book, Indelible: A Sean McPherson Novel, Book One, launches a suspense/thriller series that takes place in the Pacific Northwest.