In a study published last year in the Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers looked at data from nearly 70,000 subjects and concluded that volunteers were happier. People who start out at a lower level of well-being seem to get even more benefit from volunteering.
But I don’t need a study to tell me that volunteer work brings joy. In more than twenty years of volunteering for literacy efforts in Ethiopia, I’ve gotten to do exciting—even scary—things that have helped me grow. As the chair of a board, I got to learn new leadership skills. Every time I travel to Ethiopia, I get to see what a difference even small investments of time and money make for young people there. Every photo or memory is a great lift when I’m feeling glum or grim.
As a writer, I face lots of failure every time I set out to get a book published. Most of my books were rejected multiple times before they were published. Some of them were accepted for publication…and THEN rejected.
Any artistic passion is tough when we try to go pro. In fact, here’s a great video I recommend to my VCFA MFA graduate students when they are feeling discouraged: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91FQKciKfHI. Those of us who donate our writing or editing or translation or illustration skills to Ready Set Go Books are doing something we love to do—and we get to share it with the world without having a lot of big NO’s in the way. Thrilldom! (as one of my characters would say).
Finally, my writing is a solitary slog lots of the time. But my volunteer work gives me a team—all of the Ethiopians and Americans I’ve gotten to work with who care about the same things I do. My parents aren’t alive anymore, but my volunteer work makes me feel connected to them. When my mom decided to rock babies in an orphanage started by Mother Teresa, she did it because it gave her joy.
I’m following a beautiful path.