The Science of Woo: Service and Volunteerism

a heart volunteer graphic with words that support service as a recovery from substance abuse tool

The Science of Woo: Service and Volunteerism

The Greek philosopher Aristotle summarized that the essence of life is “To serve others and do good.”

It’s Memorial Day in the United States, and I thought that would be a good day to publish the next in my series “The Science of Woo: Service and Volunteerism. You can find the beginning of the series here.

My personal philosophy has developed in great part around the ideas, principles, and habits shared by world religions, guiding philosophies, and spiritual disciplines that have been a part of mankind’s progression and evolution. The idea and action of volunteerism and service to others is on that list. 

Yes, volunteerism is another “woo” suggestion for recovery from substance abuse. Based in 12-Step tradition, it’s also based in science. As a professional who helps high functioning persons with a substsance use disorder respond to the needs presented by their illness, it’s important that I present scientific and evidence based solutions. Volunteering and service are good healing science. Here is “just” one example of the research that confirms neural, cognitive, and well being benefits of volunteerism.

Volunteering and service work (used synonymously in this blog post), and  has been suggested and encouraged as an integral component of world religions, overarching philosophies, and even part of high school expectations.

a sign that says "do something great" to reinforce the idea that service and volunteering is a helpful skill in substance use recovery

Here are some examples:

Judaism – Hebrew Scriptures refer to “tzedakah” which translates to justice and broadly refers to the moral obligation to be of assistance.

Christianity – Christian scripture is full of exhortations to serve each other. One example is from Hebrews 6:10: “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.”

Buddhism – The Buddha’s story began when he was first exposed to suffering and the development of compassion; seeing a need and wanting to make a difference. As an extension and development of loving-kindness and compassion, volunteerism is an integral part of the Buddhist tradition.

Secular Humanism – Believing in the propensity of humans towards good without a need for a deity, humanists believe that moral living emerges as individuals express their values, benefiting themselves, their communities, and others.

Hindu – The Bhagavad Gita has scripture that outlines the expectation of giving, Dana, which includes but extends beyond money and material.

Confucianism – A philosophy with which to engage with the world, Confucianism concerns itself with the human condition, community, self, and morals.[1]

12-Step Spirituality – Long associated with helping others, the 12-Step approach’s first group Alcoholics Anonymous’ “Responsibility Statement” is:

  • “I am Responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of A.A. always to be there. And for that: I am responsible.”
  • And the 12th Step is: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

What does volunteerism and service work have to do with recovering from the brain disease of substance use?

As we’ve discussed on this blog, addiction is a brain disease. It follows, then, that we must treat the brain to heal and recover from addiction. Encouraging and facilitating service work and volunteerism is a powerful and synergistic way of impacting the brain in beneficial ways; and in the same areas of the brain negatively impacted by addiction.

“Through fMRI technology, we now know that giving activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex. Experiments show evidence that altruism is hardwired in the brain—and it’s pleasurable. Helping others may just be the secret to living a life that is not only happier but also healthier, wealthier, more productive, and meaningful.”[2]

Benefits of participating in service, volunteering, and charity include:

  • Connectedness with others
  • Health benefits
    • Stress response[3]
    • Can help extend your lifespan[4]
    • Assists with cardiac health[5]
  • Career benefits
  • Structure (a known need in recovery)
  • Teaches new skills
  • Mental health benefits
    • depression[6]
    • anxiety
    • increases self confidence[7]
    • promotes personal growth and self-esteem[8]
  • Increase happiness [9]

Resources to Get Started

My research for this post landed me on the following sites, which may help you find ways to be of service, but of course a google search of your own will generate thousands of ideas. I encourage you to mindfully think about people, populations, situations, and causes you have been interested in and to research ways to be of service.

feet next to the ground which reads "passion led us here" to reinforce the idea that service and volunteering in substance abuse recovery is a healthy habit




24618 Kingsland Blvd 2nd Floor, Room 8
Katy, TX 77494
On the left hand side of the CLS building
(281) 740-7563

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