Volunteering and Happiness
On August 2, as part of a three person panel, I had the occasion to discuss learning accommodations available to traumatic brain injury survivors on “Another Fork in the Road,” a broadcast of the weekly Brain Injury Radio Network, hosted by Donna O’Donnell Figurski. Juliet Madsen, a retired military veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, sustained a TBI in 2004 while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Both she and I discussed post-TBI issues such as indecisiveness, poor attention span, the inability to remember names, and the need to rely on written and auditory cues to accomplish daily tasks. While I found it to be comforting to know that I am not alone with the fall out of a TBI and what Juliet calls a “revolving door” (One day you have a handle on things, and the next day you don’t), I found her zeal to volunteer inspiring.
A quilter for twenty-five years, Juliet founded Stroke of Luck Quilting and Design and began sewing quilts to raise funds raise for disabled veterans. She developed the fundraiser, “The Ultimate Sew-in,” and, along with other volunteers, has made 500 quilts for injured soldiers. She also serves as an ambassador for the Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA) and speaks publicly about TBI and PTSD. And, as part of the Veterans Book Project, Juliet worked collaboratively with dozens of other veterans to write Objects for Deployment. She gathered unsettling images of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with the goal of making meaning out of her memories.
Since the radio show nearly one month ago, I’ve thought a lot about why traumatized individuals spend time volunteering, and go back to a memoir I read a few months ago. In Moving Violations, the author John Hockenberry says, “Trauma intensifies existence.” In other words, trauma brings forth experiences previously shrouded by day-to-day routines, and propels us to re-invent our lives. So it’s reasonable to say that volunteering is just one path toward re-invention. And, since traumatized people often struggle with depression and a sense of helplessness, giving back to the community can help boost self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment. From that, unfolds a better sense of emotional wellbeing. And since volunteering usually involves being around other people, it makes one less isolated, a core risk factor for depression. Of course, these benefits are not exclusive to traumatized individuals; others reap emotional gains too.
Most of us want to be happy, right? A dose of it could come as easily as spending two hours every few months playing music for elders at an assisted living facility, walking three miles once a year to raise money for a national nonprofit, or serving dinner to the homeless at a shelter during the holidays.
Does volunteering make you happy? What kind of volunteer work makes you happy? Please share.