BUSINESS

Volunteering Surprisingly Makes You Feel Like You Have More Free Time

02/25/2015 07:34 am ET | Updated Feb 25, 2015
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I spend most Sunday afternoons hanging out with elementary and middle school kids, simplifying fractions, playing Connect Four and getting reacquainted with the basic rules of spelling. I recently learned that these few hours may actually be the most productive of my week.

A couple of years ago, I started helping students with their homework as part of a volunteer program for a Brooklyn nonprofit called 826NYC, which aims to instill a love of writing in kids. The decision to spend some of my time doing unpaid work -- a decision I came to on a whim -- has been critical to my well-being. But I haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly why. Turns out, it's because it makes me feel like I have more time.

Workers who volunteer feel like they have more balance between work and the rest of their lives, according to a study from researchers at the University of Zurich. The findings, which were published this month in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, are based on an analysis of more than 700 workers' responses to survey questions about job demands, time spent volunteering and work/life balance.

The results are “kind of counterintuitive,” said Romualdo Ramos, a graduate student at the University of Zurich and one of the authors of the study. “You would expect that if they are assuming this other role, then they would experience more strain,” he told me.

And yet other research yields similar results. A 2012 study from researchers at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Yale’s School of Management and Harvard Business School found that people who spend time on others are more likely to feel they have more time themselves.

Researchers performed a series of experiments in which they asked two groups to complete different assignments -- spending 10 minutes on themselves versus 30 minutes on others, or helping someone with a task versus leaving a meeting early. They found that those who helped other people perceived that they themselves had more time -- a feeling the researchers call "time affluence."

“It’s not related to feeling more connected, it’s not related to feeling like your time is more meaningful,” said Cassie Mollinger, a marketing professor at Wharton and one of the authors of the study.

Rather, she said, “spending time on others makes you feel very effective and that you’ve accomplished a lot.”

Those findings resonate with me. I’m under no illusion that my volunteering efforts make a huge difference: I only spend a few hours a week with these kids, and sometimes I can’t understand their math homework. But I relish this time where all that’s expected of me is to try my best to help a kid understand the difference between cold- and warm-blooded animals or grasp the significance of the Louisiana Purchase.

When I leave the little library where I work with students, I feel better equipped to stare down the dark, depressing hole that is Sunday night and the daunting prospect of the rest of the week. For one thing, the reminder that I can direct my mental energy toward something other than McDonald’s earnings and minimum wage debates makes me that much more excited to tackle those topics when I get to work on Monday.

The research backs this up, too. “It does seem to be the case that people who volunteer are in their paid work more engaged,” Ramos told me. Companies are catching on to the notion that their employees will be more productive if they take some time to help others. It’s becoming common for businesses to offer their employees days off, or even weeks or months, so they can volunteer somewhere.

Still, probably the biggest thing I get out of volunteering is the fact that when I do something I could easily not have done, it makes me feel like I have time to do more. After I started volunteering, I spent more time doing other things outside of work too, like cooking, going to the gym and attending the occasional talk or reading.

Of course, it will be tempting to to give up the tutoring as I take on more commitments. Right now, the relationship between work and the rest of my life isn’t particularly strained. I don’t have kids, and my job almost always takes precedence over other commitments because I’m early in my career and trying to move it forward.

But according to the researchers, it would be a mistake for me to eschew my commitment to homework help just because I've gotten busier. A wise friend once told me that work only expands to the amount of time you have to do it in. And apparently, filling your time with obligations to help people is a more effective way to generate that feeling of "time affluence" than scheduling time to hang out with friends or pursue a hobby.

“When individuals feel time constrained, they should become more generous with their time -- despite their inclination to be less so,” the authors of the Penn study write. I hope I heed their advice and continue to volunteer for selfish reasons.

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