A dose of volunteering is just what the doctor ordered

When paediatric dentist Dr Weakley embarked on a health drive with the Tshemba Foundation and the Colgate mobile unit to screen and treat members of the community, she never expected how much more she’d gain from the experience than what she originally thought: “It makes you humble to see how little these wonderful people are able to live with. Our lives are so complicated and hectic – this makes you realise that life is more than just work and the rat race.” 

Dr Weakley’s reflection on her time at Tshemba Foundation reveals the impact volunteering can have on one’s life. When we give to others expecting nothing in return, our brains release hormones like dopamine and serotonin that make you feel all tingly inside. This is referred to as the “helper’s high”.

Besides the positive effects it has on your mood, parallels can be drawn between helping others and improved health. The Volunteering and Health Benefits Study by BMC Public Health suggests that those who volunteer have lower rates of depression, higher self-esteem, improved sense of purpose, and lower mortality rates than those who do not volunteer. This is why Research Scientist Eric Kim believes doctors should tell people about the health benefits of social activities such as volunteering. Kim also points out that to reap the rewards of giving back, your heart needs to be in it – you shouldn’t be doing it just for you. A similar notion was explored in an observational study, Motives for Volunteering are Associated with Mortality Risk, which found that volunteers who did it purely because of “self-oriented motives” rather than for the benefit of the recipients, had a mortality risk that was similar to those who didn’t volunteer.

So, how can you experience the “helper’s high”?

The first step is to identify and enrol in a programme or cause that is meaningful to you and can make a difference in people’s lives. You don’t have to be the next Kingsley Holgate and dedicate your entire life to a specific cause in order to give back. While the modern day explorer’s crusade to stop the scourge of malaria in Africa is admirable, paying it forward can be temporary, short-term or even something you stumble across.

When Tshemba Foundation founder Neil Tabatznik visited a game lodge near Hoedspruit while on holiday, he became aware of the plight of the community members living and working in the region. He cared deeply about the wellbeing of the people, devoting his time to build a school and a clinic. This legacy has enriched his life far more than he could’ve ever imagined, which is why he has championed a volunteer programme through the Tshemba Foundation.

If you’ve always wanted to embark on a volunteering journey of your own, there’s never been a better time to start. After all, a healthy dose of volunteering is good for doctors too!