As the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project at UVU, our research often focuses on the areas in which we need to improve, but with Thanksgiving just around the corner, I want to focus on an area in which Utah excels and for which I am deeply grateful: volunteering. Nobody does that better than we do in Utah. 

For the past 13 years in a row, Utah has ranked first in the nation for residents who regularly volunteer. At 51%, we are 20 points higher than the national average of 30%. That translates into 133.9 million hours per year, or the equivalent of $3.2 billion. Utahns are exceptional at looking for opportunities to serve the community and the individual. So much so that it’s part of our identity as a state. 

I was raised in a family that valued service. Even when the budget was tight, my parents always found ways for us to help others in ways that blessed both the giver and the receiver. I remember helping my mother regularly tie baby quilts that she would give to expectant mothers. My father strongly encouraged me at times to babysit for free when parents of neighborhood families were doing service themselves. As a teen, it seems I was constantly singing in “old folks’ homes” during the holidays, and the list goes on and on. Yet, this was a legacy I am proud to have passed on to my own children. This Christmas, we will take another Sub for Santa assignment for a large family in need through the United Way of Utah County, and my children and their spouses will be involved. We need to do more, but this is at least a start. 

Volunteering is not just good for the community; it’s good for the volunteers. Studies show that helping others can improve one’s mental and physical health: “It can reduce stress, combat depression, keep you mentally stimulated, and provide a sense of purpose.” At a recent Women’s Leadership Forum at UVU called “Utah Women, Giving, and Identity: The Complexity of Philanthropy in Utah,” our expert panelists explored why so many of us make giving back a central part of our lives. The room was electric with excitement as women shared their causes or talked where their compassion and energy could be best utilized. Nothing feels better than making a contribution that truly makes a difference. As panelists shared stories about how their philanthropy had changed the lives of the recipients (causes as varied as creating new humanitarian initiatives, building cultural institutions, advancing programs, and encouraging women to run for office), it became apparent that often the life changed most is our own. 

There is something profoundly hopeful when we believe we have power to make the world a better place. Look around. Who has served you? Who can you serve? Right now, I am deeply thankful for all the giving. 

Dr. Susan R. Madsen is the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership & Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.