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The Connection Between Volunteering and Recovery

Volunteerism is an integral part of drug rehab and 12-step groups like AA because there are many benefits of volunteering. Helping others is a way that people can also help themselves. Effects of volunteering include giving people a sense of meaning and purpose. Research has shown that the benefits of volunteer work can be a motivating factor in staying sober.
group of people volunteering to plant trees

“Service, as part of the recovery process, is really important because altruism is connected to empathy,” says David Sack, MD, a triple board certified psychiatrist who serves as chief medical officer of Elements Behavioral Health. “There are many reasons that people act altruistically, but in addiction recovery altruism is a common and universal experience that helping is positive.”

“People feel good about being part of something that helps people. They are hard-wired for it,” he adds. “Giving back to others ―supporting peers through recovery, being of service to family, taking sincere action to make amends ― is part of the healing that takes people out of the self-centered focus of addiction by learning about and supporting the needs of others."

Benefits of Volunteering

Some of the effects of volunteering for people in recovery include:

  • People stay in recovery longer when they focus not only on their own healing, but also what they can do to help others.
  • Many people find that helping others adds meaning to life.
  • Positive effects of volunteering can grow over time, beginning with volunteering at support group meetings or sharing experiences, and extending  to giving back to the broader community.
  • Volunteering boosts feelings of independence and a sense of being able to make a difference.
  • Doing for others reduces isolation and combats self-absorption which is common among people with addictions.
  • Volunteering helps keep people accountable.

Spiritual Awakening and Volunteerism

While the benefits of volunteering extend beyond the work done within the recovery community, it is especially poignant when people who share the same problem can help each other in positive ways. The twelfth step in Alcoholics Anonymous explicitly encourages people to give back. It reads: “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.”

People may begin in a small way, such as bringing cookies for a meeting or cleaning up the coffee cups. As recovery progresses so do their efforts to do more. There are some people who opt to become sponsors, so that they can help people newer to recovery. In the process, these volunteers become role models for sobriety and giving back. In whatever way people get involved, the effects of volunteering can have a far-reaching impact and are an important part of addiction recovery.



"Alcoholics Anonymous-Related Helping and the Helper Therapy Principle" - Taylor and Francis Online

"Alcoholics Anonymous and Spiritual Recovery: A Cultural Perspective" - Taylor and Francis Online

"Helping as Healing Among Recovering Alcoholics" - ResearchGate

"Impact of Helping Behaviors on the Course of Substance-use Disorders" - NCBI/

"Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy" - Annual Reviews

"Beyond Altruism: Sociological Foundations of Cooperation and Prosocial Behavior" - Annual Reviews

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