Volunteer Blues

Helping people doesn't make me feel better

Despite my apparently wholesome life, I have a deep, dark secret, one so shameful that I must shroud my name in the mists of a pseudonym. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but volunteering, and otherwise helping my fellow man, doesn’t make me feel all that good.

At any given time and across the country, pastors, advice columnists and moms are repeating an old chestnut: if you think you have problems, lend a hand to someone else. Volunteering will take you outside yourself, focus your energies, and cause a warm fuzzy glow to pierce the dark clouds of your bleak, crabby mood.

Natural High

Indeed, volunteering is recommended for victims of much more than a sour mood. A cancer support website encourages sufferers to “contact your local library, church, Chamber of Commerce and find out …what volunteer groups are out there and how you can help. Nothing makes you feel good about yourself more than helping others. By making others happy, you will also make yourself happy. You can’t beat the feeling. It is a natural high!”

I hope very much that people do find that natural high. All I can say is, helping people doesn’t do it for me.

I’ve volunteered in soup kitchens, serving food and washing numerous pans. I’ve tutored disadvantaged kids. I’ve made art projects with muscular dystrophy patients, cutting construction paper and tying bows. I’ve taught Microsoft Word to mothers who need resume help. I’ve passed out vitamins and medical supplies in developing countries.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that all of this was worthwhile. I don’t regret doing it for an instant.

What I do question is whether volunteering changed my outlook or helped me overcome the occasional gloomy mood. I certainly agree that people with muscular dystrophy have far greater problems than I do. I recognize that a child in danger of being illiterate is much more in need of attention than, say, my frustrating job search is. I realize that my problems as a young adult—relationship angst, office politics, family squabbles, apartment woes—pale in comparison to the challenges facing Third World people, or any of the people I’ve volunteered with.

Legitimate Issues

But my problems don’t go away, and they don’t become easier to deal with, simply because I’ve interacted with people in more dire straits. Volunteering may put your life into perspective, but your life is still there, filled with legitimate worries and unavoidable issues. Helping people doesn’t calm me down, brighten my mood, or ease the gnawing anxiety I sometimes feel about real things in my life. Believe me, I’ve tried it.

I once spoke with a New Agey guru who espoused the “helping people helps you” philosophy. “What if helping others doesn’t make you feel good?” I asked. “Then you’re not doing it right,” he answered.

Even if it isn’t life-changing or an emotional high, I usually enjoy volunteer work. I plan to continue not for what I get out of it—which, let’s face it, is a pretty selfish reason—but because it’s the right thing to do. Since when did that become such a novel idea?

Well, that’s just swell, Mr. Guru. I’m open to hearing how to do it right whenever you say so. Maybe I’m holding the soup ladle incorrectly?

So helping people doesn’t (noticeably) transform me. Is that a crime? The truth is, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this. There’s a reason why volunteer groups send out pleading emails and advertise relentlessly. I know plenty of kind, cheerful, selfless people who say they’re going to volunteer and then don’t, or try it for a few weeks and drop out. Volunteering is worthwhile, but post-volunteerism exhilaration is not all it’s cracked up to be. You need to keep at it for reasons other than your personal happiness.

Unfit to Help

There may even be rare occasions when we’re not fit to volunteer. Years ago I had just started at a new college, didn’t know the area or the people, and was feeling down. Remembering the “help others and you’ll feel better yourself” adage, I signed up to adopt a grandparent.

Pity the poor lady whose adopted granddaughter I became. One look at my mopey face must have made her regret signing up. I glumly pushed her wheelchair as we visited shopping centers and shows, but I can’t say either of us had a lot of fun.

Fortunately, my volunteer experiences have generally been positive, and my attitude upbeat. I haven’t, thank God, dragged people down in my wake, as I did with the adopt-a-grandmother.

Helping people doesn’t make me feel bad. I don’t feel exhausted or sapped after a morning at the soup kitchen or school, and I know that some of my skills are useful to people. Even if it isn’t life-changing or an emotional high, I usually enjoy volunteer work. I plan to continue not for what I get out of it—which, let’s face it, is a pretty selfish reason—but because it’s the right thing to do. Since when did that become such a novel idea?

Whether or not volunteering makes me feel warm fuzzies is beside the point. The people I work with are not my personal Prozac, there to bring me long-term happiness. They are people who need help that I can give them. I plan to stick with volunteering—but please spare me the “it will make you feel better” routine. Neither I nor people in need should be saddled with those kinds of expectations.