In the wake of the all-consuming Corona virus, there is plenty of advice floating around for how to keep yourself calm and occupied at home. I personally liked Margaret’s list over on Sixty and Me. In addition to the usual ideas of crafting and exercising at home, she also had some great suggestions like virtual travel, watching Ted Talks, and doing a “life review.”
But there’s another way to occupy your time right now that will also help make you calmer and happier: virtual volunteering. At a time when we’re getting daily reminders to be mindful of the most vulnerable, volunteering on line is not only good for the community, it’s also good for you.
The Value of Volunteering as You Age
There’s plenty of evidence out there to suggest that volunteering is good for your physical and mental health, particularly as you age. As one author wrote long before the Corona virus set in, volunteering – by allowing her a place to deposit her abundant, mid-life energy – became her personal “chill pill.”
Volunteering also taps into a larger sense of purpose. In his book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, Jonathan Rauch explores the science behind the so-called ” Happiness U-curve.” The U-curve, a statistically robust finding which cuts across countries, shows that life satisfaction falls in our 20s and 30s, hits a nadir in our late 40s, and then increases steadily until our 80s. But that upwards curve, Rauch suggests, is not only the product of greater personal acceptance and expectations-adjusting as we age. It also derives from a greater ability to re-direct our focus away from ourselves and towards our community.
The numbers back this up. As Marc Freedman notes in his book, How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, fully a third of older adults in the United States already exhibit “purpose beyond the self” – i.e., they identify, prioritise, and actively pursue goals that are both personally meaningful and contribute to the greater good. That’s 34 million people over the age of 50 who are willing and able to tutor children, clean neighbourhood parks, or work for world peace.
Obviously, in an age of social distancing, we need to move all of that good spirit and energy online. One of the easiest ways to do that is by becoming a mentor. The beauty of being a mentor is that you don’t need to work inside a large company – or even a formal hierarchy – to make a difference. All you need is a transferable skill set, a bit of empathy and the ability to help someone breakdown their work, life or education challenges into tractable, bite-sized chunks. Writers, scholars, artists, social workers – not to mention you corporates out there – can and should mentor.
Nor, in this globally connected world, do we need to work or live down the hall or street from our mentees. When I worked at the BBC, I mentored a young journalist via Skype who lived and worked 5,000 miles away from me. I gave this young woman tips for how she might communicate better with her introverted boss. I advised her on stress-management when she got stopped and questioned by her government for having taken photos of a taboo region in the country. We even discussed how she might navigate societal expectations that – as a single, unmarried woman in her early 30s – she was long overdue to have a baby, even though she didn’t feel ready.
You can also get involved with online campaigning for a cause you’re passionate about. An American artist friend of mine in London recently launched a Kick-starter campaign to support a beautiful Haggadah collage she was making for the upcoming Passover holiday. Unfortunately, she launched this fundraising drive about a week before Corona virus awareness hit “red” on the dial in the UK and the US. So she abruptly cancelled her own campaign to support a friend in Texas who was raising money to build a safety net for the restaurant workers she was going to need to lay off.
This is also a good time to get involved in political campaigning. It’s sometimes hard to remember that there’s a major set of elections in the US approaching us in November. Going door to door in swing states is ill-advised in the current moment. But there is plenty to be done online to support your political party/candidate. I personally plan to re-direct the volunteering time I normally spend teaching creative writing to children into depolying online tools to mobilise the large and occasionally pivotal swath of Americans voters living abroad.
Ageing and Wisdom
One of the concepts Rauch talks about in his book about aging and happiness is “wisdom.” His argument is that wisdom is not only, or even primarily, about knowledge and expertise. It’s also about rising about self-interest in order to promote the common good.
I, for one, feel wiser for knowing this. And I can’t wait to spread my wisdom online.