It’s something that makes you grow as a person. It is an essential part of what makes us human. It involves generosity and compassion. It comes from the heart and it goes straight back into the heart. No matter what your abilities are, anyone can do it. To give one’s time, energy, hope, and money, with pleasure, for a good cause, that is volunteering. And that’s what we all do in ESN. We are the generation of “Students Helping Students”. We give our hearts our time and even our own belongings. We are a non-stop volunteer network. But do we really know what is happening to our brain when we volunteer?
Volunteering and your brain
Selflessly giving your time and efforts, not expecting to receive anything in return, is definitely one of the best feelings human beings can experience. It has been scientifically proven that generosity and compassion are key players when it comes to living a healthy life and boosting one’s career; and it all starts in your brain.
By engaging with others, scientists have proven that you are actually changing your physiology and biology by making your brain work differently. How does this happen? Well, to put it simply, our brain releases chemicals during emotional moments. When you volunteer and you feel those special, deep and touching moments, your brain releases chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. Your brain is a processing system and it is very sensitive to emotional events. For instance, when you take part in a charity event and you see how your participation made several orphans and disabled kids happy, your brain reacts to it. The reaction provides your body and mind with the necessary energy to stay motivated and move on to the next goal.
Volunteering and your career
The more you volunteer (when all the aforementioned reactions take place in your brain), the more your brain will develop and grow. And when that happens, you acquire new skills, develop unique experiences, and build your self-confidence. Therefore, by understanding how these chemicals work, you could actually maximise your productivity and boost your career.
1. Acquiring new skills
Volunteering can both sharpen your existing skills and help you learn new ones. In ESN, for example, there is not only social work (SocialErasmus and ExchangeAbility) but also organisational tasks and responsibilities. You can learn how to organise events, give public speeches, run meetings, write reports, represent your community and give workshops. Most importantly, the development of all of these skills depends on the degree of your engagement. If you are motivated enough, your brain will keep releasing dopamine and by doing so you are automatically reinforcing your reward system. Dopamine is a very important neurotransmitter in your brain. It improves your attention span and helps you to focus on what you are doing. Additionally, it is a chemical that promotes pleasure, which explains why it is known as “the Molecule of Happiness”. This is the reason why volunteering activities, when enjoyable, are a source of inspiration and motivation. When the dopamine concentration in your brain is at its highest, this is when you are fully ready to go ahead, celebrate your achievements and set up new goals.
2. Developing new experiences and social bonds
Volunteering is often a great way to broaden your horizons and widen your network. When you volunteer, you meet new people and get the chance to build new friendships. In ESN there is a lot of face-to-face communication, both with other ESNers and with exchange students. Attending social events and taking part in group activities is one way to release oxytocin into your body. Oxytocin is also known as the “cuddle hormone” or “love hormone”. It is very important for your social bonds and behaviour. The more this hormone is released, the more links and trust you develop. Most importantly, researchers have suggested that oxytocin is an important player in curing brain injury, anorexia, and anxiety, among other psychological problems. So make sure you socialise enough, to get your dose of oxytocin.
3. Building self-confidence
Volunteering is definitely one of the best ways to build self-confidence. Being surrounded by people with whom you have to share ideas and work together, is not always an easy task. You have to be focused and have the ability to react in difficult situations. Sometimes you may have responsibility over a group of Erasmus students or university staff during important events. That feeling, and the need to survive the crisis, stimulates a chemical called endorphin. This chemical, also known as the ‘stress fighter’, gives you the power to survive problematic situations. Endorphin is a result of pain, stress, or fear, and interacts mainly with cells in your brain that are responsible for stopping pain and controlling emotions. For this reason, after a period of stress you may feel empowered, thanks to this chemical. By developing more endorphin, you are actually training yourself to become a more persistent and a more confident person.
Overall, when you understand how your brain functions, you are able to benefit from it. When you are completely aware of the type of actions you are doing (volunteering, donating, socialising, helping) in a particular environment, and what kind of effects your actions have, you are more likely to stimulate the production of “happy” chemicals. It is a conscious mechanism that can only occur when you understand it and you are fully aware of its existence. For this reason, it is important to look at volunteering from a different perspective in order to make the most of it. Of course, all of this evidence confirms what we already know:
“When you spend time volunteering, you get more than you give”
What are you waiting for? Go ahead and enrich yourself, your health and your career!