Volunteering Could Boost Happiness, Decrease Depression And Help You Live Longer: Study
By Sara Konrath, Ph.D.
Most of us know that if we eat our fruit and veggies, exercise often, and avoid smoking, we have a better chance of living longer and healthier lives. But your doctor may not have told you that regularly giving to others should perhaps be added to that healthy checklist. A new paper by Dr. Suzanne Richards and collegues at the University of Exeter Medical School, Exeter, UK, reviewed 40 studies from the past 20 years on the link between volunteering and health. Published today in BMC Public Health, the paper finds that volunteering is associated with lower depression, increased well-being, and a 22 percent reduction in the risk of dying.
In my experience, most of the studies on this topic so far compare active volunteers to non-volunteers, following them over time to see how they are doing a few years later. This is a very common method used to understand health effects of various behaviors, like smoking, taking multivitamins, or eating blueberries. But the problem with this method is that people who volunteer are "healthier and wealthier" than people who don't. So it's not surprising that a few years later they are still looking pretty good.
Experimental studies that randomly assign some people to volunteer and others to do something else (or to go on a waiting list for a few months) are much better. At least in these studies we know that everyone started off the same.
In the new paper, the authors reviewed a few such studies, but they were cautious about the general conclusions that could be made from them. More experimental studies are needed, they said. But if you really think about it, by definition, it's a bit odd for studies to force a group of people to "volunteer." So maybe that's why these studies are uncommon.
Who Benefits From Volunteering and How?
Researchers in the Interdisciplinary Program for Empathy and Altruism Research at the University of Michigan, which I direct, are doing some detective work trying to figure out the two big mysteries that remain:
First, why should volunteering be good for people's health? Here are my three best guesses:
- Any activity is good activity. Volunteering means getting off the couch and out of the house, so it makes us stronger and more physically fit. More physically fit people tend to deal with stress better, which can help them live longer lives.
- Social connections can be good for us. We are hard-wired for face-to-face contact that includes lots of touch, eye contact, and smiles. Such interactions release a hormone called oxytocin, which helps us bond and care for others, and also helps us handle stress better. Volunteering is a good way to meet others, make friends, and bond over common beliefs and goals.
- It just feels good. Volunteering can give us a deep sense of happiness, which is also associated with longer and healthier lives.
Next, who is most likely to benefit from volunteering? Here are some research-based answers:
- Our previous research finds that volunteering only has health benefits for people who do it in order to help others, rather than to help themselves. So please pick a cause you care about and do it with your heart.
- Our new research is finding that volunteering is better for religious people, perhaps because by volunteering they are affirming their most cherished beliefs to help and serve others.
- Past research finds that volunteering can actually be harmful for people who volunteer too much. How much is too much? So far, we don't have solid answers on that question. But if your volunteering job is starting to become more of a burden than a blessing it's time to scale back./li>
If you want to live forever, I can't help you with that. But if you want to live a longer, happier, and healthier life, take all the usual precautions that your doctor recommends, and then... get out there and share your time with those who need it. That's the caring cure.
"How Volunteering Can Lessen Depression and Extend Your Life" originally appeared on Everyday Health.
Also on HuffPost:
...Feel Like They Have More Time
In a 2012 study, researchers found that <a href="http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/giving-time-can-give-you-time.html">spending time on others made people feel more efficient</a>, and therefore like <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/22/volunteering-time_n_1672170.html">they didn't have to be in such a rush</a>, compared to spending time on themselves or just wasting time.
...Experience Less Depression
Volunteering time gives mental health a boost. A 2003 study found that, especially among adults over 65, <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12473312">volunteer work lowered depression levels</a>. And people facing harrowing circumstances, such as the death of a spouse or a sick child, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/28/health-benefits-of-volunteering-helping-others_n_909713.html#s316147&title=Helping_Others_Could">bounce back quicker from symptoms of depression</a> if they volunteer, iVillage reported.
...Feel Less Stressed
Nearly three-quarters of volunteers reported that their <a href="http://www.unitedhealthgroup.com/news/rel2010/UHC-VolunteerMatch-Survey-Fact-Sheet.pdf">good deeds lower stress levels</a> in a United Healthcare survey, and there's research to back them up. When giving back, the body naturally releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin, which will in turn <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/28/health-benefits-of-volunteering-helping-others_n_909713.html#s316119&title=Giving_Helps_You">reduce exposure to stress hormones</a>, iVillage reported, creating a sort of <a href="http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1150&context=lcp&sei-redir=1&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fscholar.google.com%2Fscholar_url%3Fhl%3Den%26q%3Dhttp%3A%2F%2Fscholarship.law.duke.edu%2Fcgi%2Fviewcontent.cgi%253Farticle%253D1150%2526context%253Dlcp%26sa%3DX%26scisig%3DAAGBfm39Ml0N_O2_dtEl3ikdcLYm3y2mnQ%26oi%3Dscholarr#search=%22http%3A%2F%2Fscholarship.law.duke.edu%2Fcgi%2Fviewcontent.cgi%3Farticle%3D1150%26context%3Dlcp%22">feel-good cycle</a>.
…Have Stronger Hearts
While you'll feel better all over thanks to oxytocin, the heart in particular benefits from that dip in stress. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/13/stress-awareness-day-relaxation-benefits_n_1424820.html">Stress ups risk for high blood pressure</a>, heart attacks and other heart problems, but volunteers actually show <a href="http://www.americorps.gov/about/newsroom/releases_detail.asp?tbl_pr_id=687">lower rates of heart disease</a>. And a Duke University study of people who had already experienced heart attacks found that the mental health boost they got from volunteering in turn <a href="http://www.nationalservice.gov/pdf/07_0506_hbr.pdf">kept their hearts healthy down the road</a>.
People who volunteer with the goal of helping others gain the added benefit of a <a href="http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/09/volunteering-health.aspx">longer life</a>, compared to people who volunteer for more self-centered reasons, according to a 2011 study. "It is reasonable for people to volunteer in part because of benefits to the self; however, our research implies that, ironically, should these benefits to the self become the main motive for volunteering, they may not see those benefits," the study's co-author, Andrea Fuhrel-Forbis, said in a statement.