Volunteering can add years to your life!


“Volunteering for things that you feel passionate about and are intrinsically motivated to do may help you to experience greater health benefits and protect you from burnout.” Jenny Brennan

As a lifelong volunteer, and a 3-time Peace Corps Volunteer (one 27-month assignment and two 3.5 month assignments in the Response Corps), I wanted to share with you a recent article by organizational consultant Jenny Brennan about volunteering.

Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of volunteering and have felt the many benefits firsthand. If you haven’t already, I hope you will give volunteering a try – there’s plenty of scientific research that shows it’s good for you!

Around the United States on Monday, January 21, thousands of people across the country volunteered to make a difference in their communities during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. People came together for a variety of projects such as feeding homeless veterans, cleaning parks, and collecting clothes and toys for local children. Volunteering not only strengthens communities and those being helped, but as anyone who volunteers knows, it feels good. But a closer look at the research shows that the benefits of volunteering extend beyond a warm feeling.

Benefits of Volunteering

Researchers have found that the act of volunteering is associated with several forms of well-being, including hedonic (happiness, life satisfaction), eudaimonic (meaning and self-actualization), and social (how one views his or her function in society).

In a longitudinal study with a national sample of adults, Thoits and Hewitt found that while individuals with greater well-being tend to self-select, volunteering can also enhance happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, one’s sense of control over life, and self-reported physical health. These effects held even after controlling for individuals’ participation in other voluntary groups, such as attending meetings, and their prior levels of personal well-being.

Field and colleagues have found that the act of helping others decreases the stress hormone, while Konrath and colleagues have found it is associated with lower risk of mortality in certain cases.

Activism, which can be viewed as a dedicated form of volunteering in which people advocate for particular causes, has also been linked to higher subjective reports of well-being. In a series of studies, Klar and Kasser found that activism was correlated with positive affect, hope, self-actualization, psychological need satisfaction, higher meaning in life, and agency. Interestingly, they also found a small causal effect between engaging in an activist behavior and felt vitality

How Often?

While people can seemingly experience the positive effects of volunteering and activism after just one event, both studies found that people who engaged on a more regular basis experienced greater benefits. However, studies by Morrow and Howell have shown that the positive gains of volunteering are not linear and that levels of involvement beyond 100 hours a year were not associated with increased gains.

Why Is Volunteering Beneficial?

Volunteering may impact well-being through a variety of mechanisms. It may increase people’s perceptions that they matter, that they are an important part of the world. It can instill a sense of purpose in the volunteer and can boost social resources and positive effect, which can have positive health implications. Lyubomirsky reports that helping others can also lead to a sense of capability and accomplishment.

Motivation Matters

People volunteer for many reasons, including to meet new friends, to build personal skills, and to help others. Often, people are motivated by multiple goals. But the type of motivation driving the behavior may impact the benefits one receives.

In a study reported in 2012, Konrath and colleagues examined data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study that tracked 10,317 male and female high school graduates since 1957. They found that even after controlling for factors such as socioeconomic status and physical health, people who volunteered experienced a reduced mortality risk four years later than non-volunteers, but only when they were mainly motivated for other-oriented reasons, such as altruistic values or social connection, instead of self-oriented reasons, such as self-enhancement and learning. The authors speculated that perhaps other-oriented motives engage systems that deactivate the stress response and activate restorative hormones such as oxytocin.

Regardless of whether one is motivated for other-oriented or self-oriented reasons, self-determination theory posits that the degree to which a behavior is self-directed predicts its effect on well-being. Kasser and Ryan found that people experienced greater well-being when pursuing intrinsic goals (those that are inherently rewarding and done for their own sake), but not extrinsic ones (those that are done for some external reward or end goal). Intrinsic goals may impact a person’s well-being by fulfilling the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Volunteering for things that you feel passionate about and are intrinsically motivated to do may help you to experience greater health benefits and protect you from burnout.

Beyond Individual to Society

The implications of volunteering obviously extend beyond the individual. With greater human capital allocated to vital missions more people can be helped. According to Lyubomirsky, being kind and generous leads one to perceive others more positively and fosters a heightened sense of interdependence and cooperation in the community. Given the individual and societal benefits of volunteering, perhaps this is something to consider doing throughout the year.


Field, M. F., M. Hernandez-Reif, O. Quintino, S. Schanberg, and C. Kuhn (1998). Elder retired volunteers benefit from gving massage therapy to infants. Journal of Applied Gerontology 17 (2): 229–39. Abstract.

Greenfield, E.A., & Marks, N.F. (2004). Formal volunteering as a protective factor for older adults’ psychological well-being. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 59B, S258-S264

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Be careful what you wish for: Optimal functioning and the relative attainment of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. In P. Schmuck & K. M. Sheldon (Eds.), Life Goals and Well-Being: Towards a Positive Psychology of Human Striving (pp. 116-131). Ashland, OH, US: Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.

Klar, M., & Kasser, T. (2009). Some benefits of being an activist: Measuring activism and its role in psychological well-being. Political Psychology, 30(5), 755-777.

Konrath, Fuhrel-Forbis, Lou, Brown (2012). Motives for volunteering are associated with mortality risk in older adults. Health Psychology, 31(1), 87-96. Abstract.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.

Maslach, C. (2003). Job burnout: New directions in research and intervention. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(5), 189-192. Abstract.

Morrow-Howell, N., Hinterlong, J., Rozario, P., & Tang, F. (2003). Effects of volunteering on the well-being of older adults. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 58B(3), S137-S145. Abstract.

Piliavin, J. A. and Siegl, E. (2007). Health benefits of volunteering in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 48(4): 450-464.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology, 53,141–166.

Thoits, P. and Hewitt, L. (2001). Volunteer work and well-being. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 42, 115–131.

Wilson, K. & Musick, M. (1999). The Effects of Volunteering on the Volunteer. Law and Contemporary Problems, 62, 141-168.

Jenny Brennan, MAPP 2012, is a researcher, writer, and consultant who helps organizations develop their young professional workforces and empower employees through positive communication. She also helps individuals experience greater resilience and well-being. Ms. Brennan has 15 years of nonprofit management, issue advocacy, and corporate communications experience. She writes about self-compassion and ways that individuals and organization can harness positive psychology for social good.

Would you like to be more productive this week?

Patrice Koerper  Life Coach Wishful Thinking Works Productivity

Is there a key to being more productive?

Yes, there is, and this free AsapSCIENCE video shares the key and offers great tips and scientific explanations for why they work. 

The video is just 3 minutes long and fun to watch!

Click here to learn the secrets . . .

A personal challenge

Another inspiring Viktor E. Frankl quote: 

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Patrice Koerper Life Coach Speaker Wishful Thinking Works

I love it when I figure that out early in the game!

Finding your place in the “space”

“Between stimulus and response there is a space.

In that space is our power to choose our response.

In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” 

Viktor E. Frankl

stop SignEarlier this week, I chatted online with a friend to prevent myself from writing a petty and knee-jerk response to someone else. Chatting with my friend, and following the tips below, helped me find the space I needed so I wouldn’t do or say something I would regret.

Later in the week the topic of controlling our responses came up with two other friends on two different topics. It’s amazing how easy it is for all of us to take the bait, verbally one-up someone, or feel the need to have the last word.

But with practice and lots of fun, flow, and fulfillment in our lives the need to negatively respond to life’s surprises and slights and the gentle ribbing or intended jabs of others grows less and less and our ability to find positive ways to handle touchy, hurtful, or stressful situations grows stronger.

In the “space” Frankl speaks of, there is room for all of us. It’s a cozy, safe place and hidden within it are more options than we ever imagined for achieving growth and experiencing freedom. Give it a try.

Here are some tips for holding your tongue or stilling your fingers that will help you find your place in the “space”:

  1. The minute you feel the sting, take a deep breath. A few seconds of deep breathing will help switch your brain from automatic pilot and lead you off the slippery slope you are sliding down. Breath, long, slow and steady, in through your nose out through your nose.
  2. Pause, even for a few seconds, and then admit what you are feeling. “Wow, that hurt!” “Ouch.” “Yikes.” “Ooh, I felt that one.”
  3. Slowly step back from the situation: stand-up, sit down, move away from the computer or leave the room. Find a way to give yourself physical space from the situation or the person and do it slowly and without drama – no stalking off or slamming down paperwork or doors behind you.
  4. Next, give yourself some mental space by doing something you like or that is on your to-do-list. Something as simple as making a cup of coffee and/or getting a treat; taking a walk around the block or the office or throwing in a load of laundry or making copies can help you relax and redirect your thoughts.
  5. And, then be prepared to be uncomfortable. Not reacting is difficult, but as Frankl learned firsthand under the horrific conditions in concentration camps, there is space between stimulus and response and that is where growth happens. Your uneasiness is an emotional growing pain, that’s a good thing.

Tips for dealing with the situation or person.

  1. Later talk out your feelings with someone you trust or Mind-Map or draw them out. (Make this Step way more about exploring your true feelings than venting your anger or what the other person did.) Admit what you are feeling, if not to your friend, at least to yourself.
  2. Do something nice for yourself. (If your friend or child were hurt, you would treat them kindly, treat yourself the same way, dealing with change isn’t easy.)
  3. Now share your success about not responding with someone you trust or congratulate yourself for holding your tongue or not writing the email. (“I’m proud of myself for not reacting. It was hard, but I did it.”)
  4. Give yourself time to deal with your feelings, and do not convince yourself you need to have an immediate “showdown” with the person you are upset with. Talking with them in the future might be the way to go, but wait until your anger has subsided and you have time to get your thoughts together. When you do talk to them focus on your needs and your feelings, you can mention their behavior, but don’t critique it. Write a script if you need to. (“O” magazine features monthly scripts to readers by Dr. Phil. Use those as a sample or starting point.)
  5. Figure out your role in the situation and decide what changes you need to make to reduce the likelihood that this or similar situations will happen in the future and to increase the likelihood that you will be able to handle them calmly and immediately, if they do. Come up with a plan for making those changes happen.

If you weren’t able to hold your tongue or still your fingers, don’t beat-up on yourself, but do make a sincere apology and then start over at Step 1 of “Tips for dealing with the situation or person.” (I’ll be sharing tips for making sincere apologies in a future post.)

And, then enjoy your new-found freedom.

How to Love More by Caring Less by Martha Beck


Yesterday, while waiting to meet a friend for dinner I found myself at loose ends. I was hungry because I had skipped lunch, tired from a busy, but not very productive day, and I had been feeling generally out-of-sorts for a day or two. I’d stopped at the American Corner in Bitola, Macedonia, where I am currently stationed as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer, to visit two of my friends working there, when I blurted out, “I’m bored!”

My exclamation surprised me. I’m seldom bored, and if I am, I’m even less likely to blurt it out  the way I just had and I was in the middle of my third and a pretty amazing Peace Corps assignment, what did I have to be bored about? After I laughed at myself for being so blunt, I walked over to the magazine shelf and grabbed three copies of “O” magazine. (American Corner’s are American information centers throughout the world; they’re mini-libraries, so they are well-stocked with English-language magazines, books and resource materials.) I opened the “O” with the cover that most appealed to me, and soon found myself absorbed in the open paragraphs of a Martha Beck article from a July 2011 issue.

My hunger and boredom faded as my interest grew, and I was soon laughing out loud as I read how Martha solved a coaching dilemma by blurting something out loud to a client.

As I read on, I realized there was a reason that I was where I was, reading Beck’s article. I’ve copied her article in it’s entirety, something I don’t often do, because it gave me a new perspective on a situation I’d been thinking a lot about lately and was likely the source of my ennui. Beck’s words helped me get over myself and realize there was a better way to handle the situation that was on my mind, and I thought her article was a great companion piece for the “Forgive” post I wrote a few days ago. I hope you enjoy it, too. (PS Beck’s article also let me find a way to work the word “ennui” into a post, which for me is a great boredom buster in and of itself! Oh, yes, and the one you may have to love unconditionally could be you!)

“How to Love More by Caring Less

How do you get your nearest and dearest to change their behavior? Simple: Stop giving a damn what they do, says Martha Beck.”

“Now my whole family is abusing me!” said Loretta, a client at a women’s resource center where I volunteered back in the ’90s. “If I leave my husband, it’ll just be out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

“Are you—” I cut myself off before finishing my thought, which was, “Are you crazy?” Just the week before, I’d participated in an intervention where Loretta’s family had urged her to leave her battering husband, Rex. Each person had expressed enormous love for and protectiveness toward Loretta. Now she thought they were all abusers? Huh?

“They’re just like Rex,” she said. “You saw it. They judge me. They criticize me. Nothing I do is enough for them.”

I opened my mouth, then closed it. Opened then closed it again. I kept that up for about a minute, like a perplexed goldfish, as I groped for the right thing to say. It killed me that Loretta was interpreting her family’s desire to rescue her as criticism and judgment. But even as I tried to come up with the kindest possible phrasing for “What the hell is wrong with you?” I knew my question would come across like a slap.

That’s when it dawned on me that Loretta had a point. No, her family wasn’t abusing her the way Rex did—and yet in its own way, their treatment of her must have felt like an attack. They weren’t accepting her as she was. They needed her to change. They raised their voices, made demands, pushed hard. And their intense negative emotions were triggering her fear and defensiveness.

It was in the midst of processing all this that I suddenly heard myself say, “Well, Loretta, I just love you. I don’t care what happens to you.”

The statement shocked me as it left my lips. But even as I mentally smacked myself upside the head, a funny thing happened: Loretta visibly relaxed. I could feel my own anxiety vanishing, too, leaving a quiet space in which I could treat Loretta kindly. It was true—I really didn’t care what happened to her. No matter what she did, I wouldn’t love her one bit less.

Since then I’ve found that loving without caring is a useful approach—I’d venture to say the best approach—in most relationships, especially families. If you think that’s coldhearted, think again. It may be time you let yourself love more by caring less.

Next: How does it work?
Detached Attachment

To care for someone can mean to adore them, feed them, tend their wounds. But care can also signify sorrow, as in “bowed down by cares.” Or anxiety, as in “Careful!” Or investment in an outcome, as in “Who cares?” The word love has no such range of meaning: It’s pure acceptance. Watching families like Loretta’s taught me that caring—with its shades of sadness, fear, and insistence on specific outcomes—is not love. In fact, when care appears, unconditional love often vanishes.

When my son was first diagnosed with Down syndrome, I cared so much that my fear for his future overshadowed my joy at his existence. Now that I couldn’t care less how many chromosomes the kid has, I can love him boundlessly. For you, loving without caring might mean staying calm when your sister gets divorced, or your dad starts smoking again, or your husband is laid off. You may think that in such situations not getting upset would be unloving. But consider: If you were physically injured, bleeding out, would you rather be with someone who screamed and swooned, or someone who stayed calm enough to improvise a tourniquet? Real healing, real love comes from people who are both totally committed to helping—and able to emotionally detach.

This is because, on an emotional level, our brains are designed to mirror one another. As a result, when we’re anxious and controlling, other people don’t respond with compliance; they reflect us by becoming—press the button when you get the right answer—anxious and controlling. Anger elicits anger, fear elicits fear, no matter how well meaning we may be. When Loretta’s family insisted she leave Rex, she insisted on staying. When I told her I loved her without caring what happened, she mirrored my relaxation. That’s when she began to request and absorb the advice I was now welcome to give.

Free to Be…Carefree

If you want to try loving without caring—and by now I hope you do—here’s how to get there. Just be sure to buckle up. This may be a bumpy ride.

1. Choose a Subject
Think of a person you love, but about whom you feel some level of anxiety, anger, or sadness.

2. Identify What This Person Must Change to Make You Happy
Think about how your loved one must alter herself or her behavior before you can be content. Complete the sentence below by filling in the name of your loved one, the thing(s) you want this person to change, and the way you’d feel if the change occurred:

If _______ would only _______, then I could feel _______.

3. Accept a Radical Reality
Now scratch out the first clause of the sentence you just wrote, so all that remains is:

I could feel _______.

That last sentence, oh best beloved, is the truth. It is the whole truth. Yes, your loved one’s cooperation would be lovely, but you don’t absolutely need it to experience any given emotional state. This is incredibly hard to accept—it would be so easy to feel good if others would just do what we want, right? Nevertheless, you can feel sane even if your crazy-making brother stays crazy. You can feel peaceful even if your daughter robs a bank. If Helen Keller could write, after growing up deaf and blind, “I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad,” then you can find a way to be happy even if your mother never does stop correcting your grammar.

Accepting that this is possible—that you can achieve a given emotional state even if a loved one doesn’t conform to your wishes—is the key step to loving without caring. I’m not saying that such acceptance will make you instantly content. Creating ways to be happy is your life’s work, a challenge that won’t end until you die. We’ll come back to that in a minute. For now, the goal is just to try believing, or merely hoping, that even if all your loved ones remain toxically insane forever, it’s still possible you’ll find opportunities to thrive and joys to embrace.

4. Shift Your Focus from Controlling Your Loved One’s Behavior to Creating Your Own Happiness
When I make this suggestion to my clients, they tend to take umbrage. “I always focus on creating my own happiness!” they insist. “That’s precisely why I’m trying to get my grandchildren to visit, and my cat to stop biting, and Justin Bieber to engage with me in a mutually rewarding exchange of personal e-mails!”

Best of luck with that. Because as AA or any other 12-step group will tell you, sanity begins the moment you admit you’re powerless over other people. This is the moment you become mentally free to start trying new ideas, building new relationships, experimenting to see what situations feel better than the hopeless deadlock of depending on change from someone you can’t control.

Again, this is a lifelong project, a game of “You’re getting warmer; you’re getting colder” that stops only when you do. But the focus shift that helps you stop caring is like a little dance (drop hope of changing significant other, embrace determination to find alternative sources of peace and joy, step-ball-change) that immediately, reliably diverts your energy toward happiness and unconditional love.

Next: What’s the payoff?
The Payoff

Once we’d established that I didn’t care what happened to Loretta, our work together finally became productive. In a follow-up family session, I had each relative tell all the others, “I love you unconditionally—I don’t care what happens to you.” We discussed ways in which each of them might begin creating personal happiness, regardless of Loretta’s actions. And as the focus shifted off her, Loretta felt less pressured, less harried, more respected. Smiles and hugs appeared in place of tension and tears.

Supported by her loving, uncaring family, Loretta eventually triumphed: She left Rex, got a job, and found a healthier mate. As you support your significant others, they may realize this same spectacular success. Or not. You can be happy either way, so what do you care? You have the freedom to live and let live, to love and let love. Granting yourself that freedom is one of the healthiest, most constructive things you can do for yourself and the people who matter to you. And if you disagree, I truly, respectfully, lovingly do not care.

Martha Beck is the author of six books, including Steering by Starlight (Rodale).

Don’t look back, unless it moves you forward.


Happy New Year! Welcome to 2013!

Now let’s fast forward to January 1, 2014! Picture yourself looking back at 2013, happy and excited about the changes you made. You see, it’s never too early to look ahead, and the best way to let your past move you forward, is to make changes in the present!

Just because you haven’t done something, doesn’t mean you can’t or you won’t. (No matter what anyone says; including those little nagging voices in your head.) Here’s the Wishful Thinking Works Real Deal Change Wheel to help you get real about change in 2013.

And, if your past, the world around you, or the changes you want seem overwhelming or look big and scary you can still find the courage to plow through them or find away around them. My guess is you have already accomplished and overcome many things in your life. (That’s why I know, you can make the changes you would like in 2013.)

Here’s some tips to make Wishful Thinking Work  for you in the New Year:

  1. If you have a long list of resolutions, prioritize them. Pick the one you want the most, the one that will move you forward fastest, the one that will make the others easier to accomplish down the road.  (Hint: It’s probably the resolution you have ignored or denied the longest. 2013 is the time to cross it off your list. Here’s the Wishful Thinking Works Change Circle to help you prioritize.)
  2. Then do something this week – anything – that moves you closer to your dreams. Be a tad braver, a bit kinder, and a smidgen more positive, too. Work smarter, play harder, love more, and complain less. Create a plan.
  3. Then repeat what works for you, and stop doing what doesn’t.

And, don’t forget to visit or “Follow” Wishful Thinking Works here and on Facebook in 2013, in fact, make it a priority! There’s absolutely no reason you have to face change alone. I learned a long time ago, help is just outside our comfort zone, but not out of our reach!

And, remember, don’t limit your future by reliving your past, use it to move you forward in the present.

Happy New Year

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