As an animal lover I’d daydreamed of working with animals, but used to think I’d missed my chance by going in a different career direction – or two. And then after I’d started working 3 days a week (and had more space to think clearly and more time to look for opportunities) I saw the chance to volunteer at Battersea Cats & Dogs Home. Several years later I still work on the cattery intake floor with the new arrivals – ranging from streetwise, battle-scarred strays to very scared cats whose owners have died or “gifted” them to the Home for various reasons.
I did my apprenticeship as a cattery support volunteer, cleaning out litter trays, scrubbing empty pens etc, before being “promoted” to cat socialiser. It turned out this meant cuddling the cats looking for affection, playing with others and sometimes just talking or sitting quietly while a terrified cat sat behind a curtain and didn’t show its face for the whole visit.
Call me crazy cat woman, but I love it! When I’m going back after a holiday, or an enforced absence such as an outbreak of cat flu, I feel the happiness bubbling up inside me. I know the cats benefit such a lot too. This sense of giving something back is very important to the structure of my life in retirement and helps to give it meaning. Research in the field of positive psychology backs this up, showing that people who are more altruistic report a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. The Mental Health Foundation suggests that doing good can help reduce stress, improve emotional wellbeing and even physical health.
I appreciate that not everyone wants to volunteer with animals! There are plenty of opportunities to give your time and skills in all kinds of areas. In fact there’s no need to volunteer in a structured way at all to access the benefits of altruism. Random acts of kindness – or just helping others feel good – can also work in the same way. Actions such as shopping for an elderly neighbour, expressing appreciation to friends and family, create positive emotions which benefit your sense of perspective, help get rid of negative feelings such as anger, and boost the immune system.
Which all goes to show that if you practise altruism and help others, you help yourself into the bargain!
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