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Dana WilsonEmployers like to hire candidates who have volunteering experience. In fact, many companies encourage their employees to volunteer a few hours a week; others run their own volunteer programs.

But the importance of volunteering for a worthwhile cause transcends a paycheck and career advancement. The true payoff is the heartfelt satisfaction that comes from improving other people’s lives – and often, the privilege of saving them as well. Volunteering is one of those rare and unique activities that can affect every aspect of your life – your career, relationships, personal philosophy – and transcends all racial, ethnic and educational barriers.

In the late 1990s, Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and a respected proponent of positive psychology, said that scientists should study what was going right with people’s lives rather than concentrating on what was going wrong. Seligman said that the “highest level of sustained happiness comes when people can give a wider meaning to their lives. Helping others through politics, voluntary work or religion can help people to realize that there is something bigger and more important than them.”

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Several studies have found that regular volunteer work increases life expectancy, and is also good for your immune system and your nervous system. Just as proper diet and exercise promote good health, there is evidence that a healthy lifestyle should include a dose of volunteering.

In addition to the traditional places to volunteer, which include hospitals, libraries, and religious organizations, there are some that might not have occurred to you, such as:

  • day care centres, public schools and colleges
  • halfway houses and drug rehabilitation centres
  • fraternal organizations and civic clubs
  • community theatre bands and orchestras
  • retirement centres,  homes for the elderly, Meals on Wheels, community-sponsored soup kitchens and food pantries
  • museums, art galleries and monuments
  • prisons, neighbourhood parks, youth organizations, sports teams, after-school programs and shelters for battered women and children
  • historical restorations, battlefields and national parks

Unsure about the right non-profit for you? Here are six tips that can help you make a decision:

  1. Look for a group that represents issues you feel strongly about.
  2. Think about the skills you have to offer. Many volunteer positions require familiarity with certain equipment or athletic or communications abilities, for example.
  3. Consider learning something new. Volunteering could open new career doors. Many non-profits are always looking for people who are willing to learn.
  4. Look for organizations that can help you realize untapped goals. If you’ve always wanted to take a cooking class, try volunteering at a food bank that teaches cooking skills, for example.
  5. Don’t over commit. Your heart may be in the right place, but it’s very common to promise more than you can deliver. Start off slowly to make sure that your volunteer work doesn’t conflict with other commitments.
  6. Don’t overlook virtual volunteering opportunities. Thanks to technology, there are organizations that offer the opportunity to do volunteer work over the Internet – for example, giving free legal advice or typing a college term paper for a student.

Dana Wilson is a freelance writer

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